BOOK TITLE: Peculiar Ground
BOOK AUTHOR: Lucy Hughes-Hallett
January 9th 2018
GENRES: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
CHECK IT OUT AT: Goodreads
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"Unlike anything I’ve read. With its broad scope and its intimacy and exactness, it cuts through the apparatus of life to the vivid moment. Haunting and huge, and funny and sensuous. It’s wonderful."—Tessa Hadley
The Costa Award-winning author of The Pike makes her literary fiction debut with an extraordinary historical novel in the spirit of Wolf Hall and Atonement—a great English country house novel, spanning three centuries, that explores surprisingly timely themes of immigration and exclusion.
It is the seventeenth century and a wall is being raised around Wychwood, transforming the great house and its park into a private realm of ornamental lakes, grandiose gardens, and majestic avenues designed by Mr. Norris, a visionary landscaper. In this enclosed world everyone has something to hide after decades of civil war. Dissenters shelter in the woods, lovers rendezvous in secret enclaves, and outsiders—migrants fleeing the plague—find no mercy.
Three centuries later, far away in Berlin, another wall is raised, while at Wychwood, an erotic entanglement over one sticky, languorous weekend in 1961 is overshadowed by news of historic change. Young Nell, whose father manages the estate, grows up amid dramatic upheavals as the great house is invaded: a pop festival by the lake, a television crew in the dining room, a Great Storm brewing. In 1989, as the Cold War peters out, a threat from a different kind of conflict reaches Wychwood’s walls.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett conjures an intricately structured, captivating story that explores the lives of game keepers and witches, agitators and aristocrats; the exuberance of young love and the pathos of aging; and the way those who try to wall others out risk finding themselves walled in. With poignancy and grace, she illuminates a place where past and present are inextricably linked by stories, legends, and history—and by one patch of peculiar ground.
Yawn. More historical fiction.
But then YAY! More historical fiction!!!
I began Peculiar Ground with high expectations. Hughes-Hallett is an amazing historian and a great writer, combining the two to make history interesting.
The first part of Peculiar Ground is set in 1663. And I LOVE reading historical fiction from this general period in England. Revolution, more revolution, fights for the religion of the country, wars over the monarchy and the general direction of the England. From the Tudor Era through about the early 1700’s, this period fascinates me. Maybe because it was these tumultuous times that lead to the birth of the United States.
But this part of the book was not my favorite. I couldn’t get a firm grip on what was happening. Much to my surprise, it was the story of the grounds and gardens — the landscaping– of Wychwood that kept me interested (and now I believe this was the point of those original chapters). I’m NOT a gardener. I’m a people person. Usually it’s characters that pull me in. Not so much in Peculiar Ground.
So I continued to read. Not too far into the book it jumps to the 1960’s. And that’s when I found the characters that I needed. Surprising to me, though, it was still the story of Wychwood, its connections to the people and the village throughout history, that fascinated me. The way it endured and transformed, while still staying pretty much the same. They history and the characters that estate — the house AND the grounds — must have seen and survived!!!
Hughes-Hallett plays off another part of history I love: The Cold War. First using the tensions that lead to the building of the Berlin Wall, and then to the (looking at it now) strange, euphoric, hopeful time when the same Wall came down, readers are treated to a look at history and the tricks politics plays. The characters suffer heartbreak and lose, while holding onto each other and finding a way to accept each other, no matter their politics, background, sexual preferences, or anything else.
Despite my initial feelings, I loved this book. The sweep of history, the connection land and family plays through time, holding us to home. It’s something I’ve felt strongly for years, wishing I could buy my grandparent’s original house or the buildings in which housed our family business for decades in the 20th century. I can’t imagine the pull of an estate such as Wychwood, owned by the same family for centuries. It’s grounding and freeing at the same time.
Peculiar Ground isn’t a quick read, but it is immensely satisfying. Hang on through those first 60 pages, because the pay off is worth it. The story, the characters, the land — it’s all worth it.