Dreams crumble in a tumbledown cottage
The Shadow Year
By Hannah Richell Hachette, 416pp, $29.99
WHEN a writer has received plaudits and impressive sales for a first book, the pressure to replicate that success can cause crippling stress: the so-called second novel syndrome. This affliction is commonly marked by performance anxiety, resulting in a failure to meet expectations the next time round. To take one example, Zadie Smith’s mediocre The Autograph Man followed her dazzling debut, White Teeth .
Happily, British-born Sydney writer Hannah Richell hasn’t succumbed to SNS. Her highly acclaimed first novel, Secrets of the Tides, was published only last year. It’s quite an achievement to release another book so soon after, but perhaps it was timed to capitalise on the warm reception of the first one.
At any rate, The Shadow Year shows every sign of continuing its author’s success.
It helps that Richell has chosen to replicate elements of Secrets of the Tides , in effect tinkering with her winning formula. So like its predecessor this new novel moves between country and city and oscillates between past and present in alternate chapters that link the convoluted story of a family history marked by betrayal and lies.
A decrepit rural cottage in northern England connects the two narratives that are separated by a 30-year time difference. The first focuses on Kat who, along with four friends, stumbles on the abandoned stone cottage nestled amid emerald hills beside a lake deep in the Peak District.
It’s the 1980s and the quintet, all recent university graduates, decide impulsively to opt out of life and take their gap year squatting in this remote location. Led by the charismatic Simon, the students are seduced by the romanticism of trying to eke out a hunter- gatherer existence, living off the land and surviving on bare essentials. Withdrawing from the rat race to swim, fish and lounge around drinking seems like an inspired, if short-sighted experiment.
Three decades later, Lila, an interior designer grief-stricken by a recent loss, is bequeathed a heavy silver key by an anonymous benefactor. Eventually she discovers it opens the door to this falling-down house in the middle of nowhere.
Just as Kat and her fellow foragers were trying to postpone their future by hiding themselves away from civilisation, Lila finds herself escaping her London home (and her crumbling marriage) in order to live alone in the cottage, and finds a measure of salvation by slowly renovating it. Maybe concentrating on a tumbledown property will somehow mend her broken state of mind.
Seen from the perspectives of the two women, The Shadow Year is a slow-burning drama, with several mysteries furled tightly inside one another, and only gradually are the layers allowed to unravel. It comes as little surprise that the graduates’ idealised vision of bucolic self-sufficiency suffers as winter arrives and suddenly communing with nature doesn’t seem so agreeable after all. That Lila becomes less jittery the more she embraces the wilderness is also a neatly contrasting parallel to the students’ growing disenchantment.
But though there are predictable swoops in the storyline, there are enough twists and secrets to keep the reader guessing until the last page. Richell does an excellent job at building suspense: a bullet hole in the kitchen beam, a scrap of writing and faded stick-figure drawings discovered by Lila offer clues to occurrences in the cottage years earlier.
As well as creating an engaging and intricately plotted narrative, Richell is adept at using small brushstrokes and shading in contours so all her characters are rendered threedimensionally. The friction and changing dynamics among the young adults when an unexpected visitor arrives and Lila’s attempts to confront her demons are handled sensitively.
Richell’s attention to detail also extends to evoking location; she’s particularly generous with her descriptions of the idyllic rural setting and the slow seasonal changes, when the lake’s ‘‘ blue eye’’ is transformed into frozen grey steel. Jodi Picoult has been mentioned as a comparative author in terms of commercial fiction that centralises family and domestic matters, often with some sort of underpinning tragedy as a catalytic force, but Richell does a finer job at just about everything. She’s an astute storyteller and knows exactly how to reel in readers and keep them hooked.