Books

Book Review

Walls rise and fall in ‘Peculiar Ground’

Forget the 30-ish whippersnappers pulling down seven-figures for manuscripts about texting-obsessed millennials. Instead, focus on Lucy Hughes-Hallett, who, at 65, just published her debut novel. Though late to fiction, she’s no piker, having already won prizes as a biographer. In this new challenge, she chronicles the decades from 1663 to 1989 of Wychwood, an Oxfordshire estate, to create a dazzling historical novel with timely resonances for the Trumpian present. Her theme is walls: walls to exclude the undesirable, to insulate the favored, to separate classes, to divide countries; walls that rise, crumble, or are torn down.

Such walls dominate a huge canvas populated by an abundance of characters. Fortunately, a dramatis personae offers a helpful guide, which contains four centuries of the estate’s inhabitants: aristocrats, laborers, visitors, villagers, Oxford classmates, even a witch or two, plus the dogs — descendants of the original Lupin and Wully and Dorabella.

This large cast and considerable expanse of time demand a complicated structure and expert juggling. The author is up to the job. She has divided the novel into several sections, with different narrators, whose points of view range from first person to third. Their voices, some flowery and mature, others young and modern, are beautifully nuanced, the syntax appropriate to period, gender, class, and personality. The prose is uniformly gorgeous.

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The first section is narrated by John Norris, a landscape designer hired by the earl of Woldingham, who has just returned from exile during England’s civil war in the 17th century. Not only is Norris expected to devise exquisite gardens, fountains, and lakes, but also, he’s assigned to create “an impassible barricade.” Not surprising, given the hothouse atmosphere, Norris lusts after Woldingham’s politically sensitive niece, Cecily, who abhors the wall and “its rigid distinction between the privileged space within it, and the inferior world without.”

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The second part leaps ahead to the 1960s. Wychwood has changed hands and is now owned by the crasser Christopher Rossiter and his wife, Lil. Nell, 8, daughter of the land agent, takes over the story. Though Nell has pool privileges at the main house, she’s aware of how “polite they always had to be when they came up to Wychwood.” Another visitor, equally below the salt, is Antony Briggs, an Anthony Blunt figure who advises Lil on art. An “effortless conversationalist,” he can be counted on as a last-minute, fill-in guest. Since Antony speaks Russian, has lived in Berlin, and hides a secret past, Nell wonders whether he’s a spy. Also in attendance is Nicholas, a journalist covering the Berlin Wall, who notes of Wychwood, “[w]omb-warm and sequestered, it was at once a sanctuary and a place of internment.” Beyond this sanctuary, a group of hikers plan to access the estate’s land, claiming a right of way.

No matter how hard the Rossiters try to avoid the riffraff, the outside world encroaches — one that beckons Nell, who leaves for Oxford in 1973. Her classmates are a motley crew, including Selim, a Pakistani who can’t believe the English “could eat such disgusting food.” But no one can stay away from Wychwood for long. Nell comes back. And Selim hides out there when, in 1989, his role in publishing work by a Rushdie-like writer leads to him being threatened by the fatwa. Throughout, all the characters connect to the estate with varying degrees of love and hate, craving protection as well as independence from what is both paradise and prison.

Nevertheless, modernization infiltrates the most impenetrable boundaries. Woodstock meets Wychwood when a pop concert is held on the property. Though the event is by invitation only, local activists plot to gatecrash as “an outcry against elitism and the political emasculation of music.” Later, and even worse, the estate becomes the setting for a popular reality show. In each episode, Lil gives tea parties and reminisces, sounding “like a toff in a television fantasy, which is exactly what I was.” By the time the Berlin Wall falls, some of Wychwood’s barriers have crumbled, too. During a violent storm, Norris’s avenue of beeches collapses, shrinking the wall “to a low-lying jumble of stones over which the terrified fallow deer leapt, escaping its enclosure, as their forebears had been pointlessly trying to do for over three hundred years.”

The final portion reverts to the 17th century. Though the plague threatens, Lady Woldingham trusts Wychwood’s walls to protect them. The plague, though, does not discriminate by class or geography. Nor do other tragedies. Death, disease, betrayal, fires, and storms recur and wreak havoc. Still, love, joy, and humor also flourish. Treated to such a brilliant, ambitious mixture of actual history and creative invention, the determined reader, however daunted by the novel’s enormous scale, will turn the last page rewarded, delighted, and eager for Hughes-Hallett’s next.

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Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at mameve@mamevemedwed.com.

PECULIAR GROUND

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Harper, 464 pp., $28.99

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