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