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Pe­cu­liar Ground Lucy Hughes-hallett (4th Es­tate, £16.99)

It’s a cop­per-bot­tomed, al­beit dis­qui­et­ing, cliché that his­tory re­peats it­self. It’s also a time­less con­so­la­tion. this is the theme of Lucy Hughes-hallett’s first novel as it ranges from Restora­tion Eng­land to the Cold War and back.

Pe­cu­liar Ground—with pe­cu­liar mean­ing both strange and spe­cific—is the story of Wy­ch­wood, an evoca­tively de­scribed Ox­ford­shire es­tate, and ev­ery­one in its com­pass. Res­o­nantly, it is also an al­le­gory about walls, both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal, and their ul­ti­mate fragility; we wit­ness bar­ri­ers be­ing con­structed, ei­ther to con­fine or ex­clude, but those same bound­aries are never im­preg­nable to thought or nat­u­ral jus­tice.

Be­gin­ning in the 1660s, an age still stained by civil war, Wy­ch­wood is be­ing land­scaped for Lord Wold­ing­ham, lately re­turned from ex­ile. Mr Nor­ris, an elo­quent Every­man, is charged with cre­at­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial Eden, re­plete with ornamental lakes, in­ter­sect­ing av­enues and se­cret gar­dens, a haven to ex­clude dis­senters, plague, witch­craft and a world ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­tered. such a vi­sion, how­ever, proves flimsy in the face of per­sonal tragedy, for­bid­den de­sires and the winds of po­lit­i­cal change.

three cen­turies later, Wy­ch­wood plays host to a dis­parate gath­er­ing of fam­ily, friends and foes, all charis­matic and all scru­ti­nised with in­sight by the agent’s daugh­ter, eight-year-old Nell. Overnight, the Berlin Wall is erected and the world changes key. a fur­ther shift hap­pens when the nar­ra­tive scrolls for­ward to Wy­ch­wood’s first pop fes­ti­val in 1973 and yet an­other when the Wall falls in 1989. By then, a no­to­ri­ous fatwa, treach­ery and the curse of aids have joined the ros­ter of mankind’s op­pres­sors.

there may be noth­ing new un­der the sun, but, from this re­frain, Miss Hughes-hallett, an ac­com­plished bi­og­ra­pher, has or­ches­trated that rare thing: a fresh classic. am­bi­tious, sat­is­fy­ing and ma­ture, Pe­cu­liar Ground is spell­bind­ing. Caroline Jack­son

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