Approaching her death, and the end of Claire Fuller’s third novel, Frances Jellico — for the most part a stickler for order and rules — admits that ‘the truth isn’t always the right way’. A wasting disease has given her dementia, ‘but is kind enough to leave the summer of 1969 intact’. She dips in and out of her memories in a fugue state of disorientation and, it would seem, sedative-induced dreams. ‘A sharp stab of pain in my arm and once more I am in the attic at Lyntons.’
Lyntons was a Georgian stately home in Hampshire, whose garden architecture, including ‘orangery, grotto, mausoleum and sundry follies’, she was sent to survey for things of value. One of those unawakened, perennially obscure scholarly types who are well-suited to observing other people’s stories, Frances went to Lyntons having passed her life up to middle age caring for her mother: ‘I had always spent my free time in the British Museum, writing little history articles for pleasure.’
But assessing the inside of the house is Peter Robertson, an antiques specialist who has brought along his partner Cara, a beautiful, captivating fantasist: both obsess Frances. She spies on them through a Judas hole in her attic floor. And when, after a month of knowing each other and getting drunk together, the three uncover a stockpile of Lynton family treasure not inventoried, the tension leads to a multitude of transgressions. The terminal one is progressively alluded to. In the present day, a one-time hippy clergyman Frances knew from the 1960s tries to extract her version of events.
It’s becoming very familiar now, this format: the two-tier narrative comprising reminiscence and present-day narrative. As the earlier strand catches up with the present, 1969 is supplemented by flash forwards to a courtroom scene. There are faces at windows — a gothic strain which feels almost perfunctory. This can seem, in such a naturally engaging and elegantly written novel, rather functional, even obligatory. Fuller is an amply gifted storyteller, and the pace needn’t have been ramped up.
Bitter Orange could have remained as sultry as the summer it describes. Still, under such cover, there are other, more subtle techniques to enjoy: hints that Frances was never the goody goody she claimed to have been before Lyntons. Indeed, her whole reminiscence could — but might not — be full of delusions as fanciful as the ones told by Cara, and which so enthralled her.