Dreams crum­ble in a tum­ble­down cot­tage

The Shadow Year

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Thuy On Thuy On

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.

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