Back to the old house: Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallet
Peculiar Ground is a novel of divisions and connections, of the Berlin Wall going up and down and the changing world after the Restoration, of the young giving way to the old and the estate of Wychwood standing throughout. In 1663, the grounds of Wychwood are landscaped by Mr Norris, who watches the family as he plans the hedges. These same grounds provide the backdrop for a party in 1961 where eight-year-old Nell overhears the adults talking but scarcely understands their world of Cold War spies and love affairs. In the ensuing decades, Wychwood continues to stand as a place where the same people gather and play out the intrigues of their lives as a new world dawns with the Berlin Wall coming down and the grounds of Wychwood used as a tourist attraction.
Hughes-Hallet creates a varied novel with a wide cast of characters across both the seventeenth- and twentieth-century portions, using different narrative styles and perspectives to get across their differences. The seventeenth-century parts are largely narrated by Mr Norris in an archaic – but not overwhelmingly so – style, making them feel quite different to the Cold War narrative that forms the bulk of the book. The parallels drawn between the two are clear and expected, but this trope serves to show how the ‘peculiar ground’ of Wychwood bears drama across the centuries.
The narrative is controlled tightly, with mystery and ambiguity, hinting towards later events or details that will not yet be fully revealed. This is one of its main strengths: a sense of being drawn into the world of Wychwood in 1961 and watching the characters then and in the two subsequent periods in which they are shown, revelling in their triumphs and problems, waiting for more secrets to be known. Stand out characters are often the ones who are outsiders brought into the scene, like the art dealer Antony whose secrets everybody seems to know.
Peculiar Ground is an epic kind of English country house novel, but one that works to reflect the world around it, from Andy Warhol in the early 70s to Salman Rushdie and religious tension in 1989. The seventeenth-century part adds interesting parallels and ideas about religious difference, witchcraft, and garden landscaping, though it is less compelling that the large middle of the novel focused on the years when the Berlin Wall was standing, which has a more intriguing set of characters and events. The novel may appeal to fans of Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child or Stoppard’s Arcadia, but also to anyone who enjoys novels spanning across changing times, watching as characters react and a crucial location stands still.