Book Review: Unsettled Ground

Good morning! As I write this intro I am sweating in my living room thanks to a lack of air-conditioning and soaring Bay Area temperatures. Apparently we’re in for a bit of a heat-wave and I am not looking forward to it. On the bright side, it means I have an excuse to be extremely lazy, and therefore spend hours wiling away on my couch reading. Lots of exciting reviews to come but today I wanted to share the last of my reviews of the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted novels – Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller.

Goodreads synopsis:

What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back?

Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. At risk of losing everything, Jeanie and her brother must fight to survive in an increasingly dangerous world as their mother’s secrets unfold, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

This is a thrilling novel of resilience and hope, of love and survival, that explores with dazzling emotional power how the truths closest to us are often hardest to see.

My review:

Overall rating: 3/5
Pages: 245
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Pace: Slow
Read if you loved: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Content warnings: Death of a loved one, bullying, poverty and hardship

Unsettled Ground is the last of the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted books in my reading spree, and just like the others, I can see why it’s loved by so many. Each and every book on the shortlist is so well-written and tells such a powerful story, but not all of them were to my taste. And that’s okay! It would be a strange thing for me to feel connected to every book when they’re so diverse. Sadly, this is one of the books that I could appreciate for what it is, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

I fell for Fuller’s writing from the first page. Her imagery, turns of phrase, and general expression of the twins’ emotional journeys is immaculate. The book has a melancholic yet frenzied feel to it, which complements the atmospheric components of the story well. We watch the twins cope with the loss of their mother and thereby the loss of everything they have held close to them. Dot’s death is the pull that unravels the thread of their existence, and it is brutal, tragic, and painful to watch. This downward spiral is something I have read in a lot of books but Fuller embraces and simmers in the ugly side of trauma in a way that feels more vulnerable than most. Jeanie, in particular, is a poignant personification of the way we cling to past realities in an effort to maintain denial, often turning on those who offer help in times of need. It is frustrating to read – there were many moments in which I wanted to yell at the two of them to let go of their stubborn ideals, but at the same time, this growing antipathy is an accurate coping mechanism wielded by many.

My issues were two-fold: the mystery component was flimsy at best – nothing really surprised me – and I simply could not connect to the characters. I felt for them so deeply, but there was something that hindered my reading journey. I tried to break down the possible reasons in my head, and while I’m still not sure what it was, I’ll do my best to explain. Julius and Jeanie are not likable characters, and while that’s usually fine in other books, I felt that they were fairly stagnant. Their unwillingness to change is itself a message, but it didn’t help the way I was feeling. Moreover, this book is just so damn sad. It’s the same issue that I had with How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House in that the tragedies felt relentless. Maybe I should have given it more time before jumping to Unsettled Ground, because there is only so much I can take before my brain descends into apathy as a defense (yes, I see the irony). I wanted more hope, more light, and maybe that’s me being naive but again, it is fiction. It doesn’t need to be a happy-ending – I love a heartbreaking ending – but I felt like I just read 250 pages of people suffering and I need a bit more than that.

And that’s a wrap on the Women’s Prize for Fiction novels! The only book from the shortlist that I have not reviewed here is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett which is sad since it is probably my favorite of the six, however, I read it before I started this blog and simply don’t have it in me to re-read. You’ll just have to take my word for it. And one last update – the winner is now going to be announced on September 8th (postponed from July 7th), so you have plenty of time to read some of these if you choose to do so. And as always, I’ll be here waiting to discuss, provided of course, that I survive this heat.

Reviews of books shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize For Fiction

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

No One is Talking About This

Piranesi

Transcendent Kingdom

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