A A A

Peculiar Ground – Lucy Hughes-Hallett

By Hannah M Smith, on 26 April 2018

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018

What should we do? Reinforce our walls or tear them down?

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the Costa Award-winning author of The Pike, poses this question in her beautifully-written and engaging debut novel Peculiar Ground. She tells the story of Wychwood, a great house and its surrounding park which was enclosed by a wall in the 17th century. We trace Wychwood’s journey from its inception in the 17th century, when it was designed by the awkward, reticent landscape-maker Mr Norris under the orders of the ambitious and troubled Lord Woldingham who now chooses to enclose himself and his family in Wychwood after being thrown out of his ancestral home during the English Civil War. The restoration of Charles II leaves the inhabitants of Wychwood uncertain and afraid; these turbulent emotions continue to blur the boundaries between security and confinement, between ‘prison’ and ‘paradise’.

We do not only meet the initial inhabitants of Wychwood but return to the great house nearly four hundred years later to meet a new lively cast of characters. I was initially disappointed when Mr Norris’s narrative seemed to end and we skipped forward to 1961, as another wall goes up in Berlin, but I recovered from that quickly we I was introduced to the innocent yet perceptive voice of Nell, the eight-year-old daughter of Wychwood’s land agent Hugo Lane. As strange and contradictory as it sounds, it is walls that both divide the inhabitants of Wychwood from the outside world but join them together with its past inhabitants. Christopher Rossiter and his wife Lil, the new owners of the grand house and park, along with a plethora of frustrating, comic and overall secretive guests, have built their own personal walls and seem to have forgotten how to let people in. Indeed, the Rossiters in particular seem to be unsure of whether it would be worth it to bring down their walls.

We learn that tragedy precedes enclosure as throughout the book we gain glimpses into a tragedy that revives itself nearly four centuries later and joins two very different families in their immeasurable grief as well as adding an element of melancholic magic to a book otherwise focused on realism. The reader follows the Rossiters, the Lanes and the other guests of Wychwood until 1989. I must admit that it was delightful to meet a grown-up Nell and Flossie.

Sometimes the narrative can seem a little crowded but even then, the writing is engaging and thoughtful. Hughes-Hallett displays a writing style that shifts effortlessly between perspectives and mediums, smoothly switching from the main narrative to letters and newspaper articles. It was easy to become wound up in her characters’ lives. My reactions to her diverse ensemble ranged from wanting to have a long chat with Flossie to the urge to yell at the immensely frustrating Benjie. Peculiar Ground is a large novel and I did not initially expect to get through it as quickly as I did, but the narrative is so vibrant and pulsing with energy that you find yourself compelled forward, forgetting the fact that it is long past midnight and you have to get to work the next day.

Meera Santiapillai

Peculiar Ground is published by Fourth Estate