Granny's Good Reads 

Sonia Lee is one of our most treasured customers and a voracious reader.

June 2019

 - Thursday, May 30, 2019
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, best known for The Pike, her prize-winning biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, has at the age of 65 written her first novel—an extraordinarily accomplished work called Peculiar Ground. It begins in 1663 when landscape architect John Norris is charged with designing a great park surrounded by an extensive stone wall. Lord Woldingham has returned to Wychwood, his ancient Oxfordshire estate, after being exiled during the Civil War. His sister was chatelaine during the Cromwell era but now she is out of favour and Norris complicates his life by falling in love with her daughter Cecily. Wychwood is full of spies, dissenters and witches, and sorrow strikes the Woldinghams when they lose their young son and heir in a freak drowning. We now shift forward to 1963, when another wall is being built, this time in Berlin, again amid social upheaval. Christopher and Lil Rossiter now own Wychwood, with descendants of the Woldinghams’ servants as gardeners and housekeeper. The Rossiters too are mourning the drowning of their young son. We meet Nell, a daughter of the land agent, and Flossie, who later becomes chatelaine of the estate. We are then propelled forward to 1989 when the Berlin Wall is being demolished, before returning to the 17th Century, where we discover how the estate’s construction ended. When the author started writing the novel she didn’t know how prescient her themes of walls and borders and shutting people out would be. In the 1660s the Woldinghams wanted to shut out people who were fleeing the plague, while keeping religious dissenters under restraint. In 1989 the estate is opened to the public and rented out for a TV show, while a mob of activists wants to re-open an ancient right of way through a significant part of the estate. This is a dense, complicated, sprawling novel with time-shifts and recurring themes and I was completely involved with the characters and the beautifully described landscape. Hughes-Hallett, incidentally, makes intriguing use of the remains of a Roman mosaic under the ruins of the old dissenters’ meeting place. She grew up on just such an estate as Wychwood where her father was land agent, which perhaps explains the immediacy of her descriptions of characters and landscape and her sharp ear for dialogue. Peculiar Ground is a remarkable achievement which I hope will not be her last venture into fiction.  

I read in tandem a somewhat similar novel—Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere. This too is a brilliant demonstration of time-shifts and narrative dexterity, starting in 2011 with a handsome tennis player who is sleeping with several women connected to a Rhode Island mansion, then moving back to 1692, where an orphaned Quaker girl is negotiating her future at the very time when witches are being hanged at nearby Salem. In between, in 1896, we have a closeted gay dandy scheming to marry the heiress who owns the estate, while earlier in the century Henry James is being attentive to a charming girl who thinks he intends matrimony; and finally, during the American Revolution, a fiendish British officer is scheming to seduce the teenage daughter of a Jewish merchant. It all takes place in Newport, with Smith jumping from story to story and making chameleon shifts in style with each one, so that by the end we are perfectly familiar with the voices and inner complexities of each character. The tennis player is convinced that he is a decent man, while initially behaving like a gold-digging cad. The gay dandy feels that he is owed a rich wife, mainly because he is unable to live openly the sort of life he really wants. The Quaker girl is waiting for the Light to help her decide her future when she is offered marriage by a good man the age of her dead father, even though her heart belongs to John Pettibone, a man too young to support her. She is troubled too by the implications of owning Ashes, a female slave who wants to marry a freeman called Spearmint, at a time when slaves are property and worth a lot of money. Though Henry James pays court to Miss Taylor he really wants not to marry her but to use her as model for a character in a future novel. The Maze at Windermere is indeed the work of a master and richly repays both reading and rereading. 

Don’t miss Barry Maitland’s latest mystery The Promised Land because it’s a cracker. With two brutal murders on Hampstead Heath, newly promoted Detective Chief Inspector Kathy Kolla under pressure to make an arrest, Brock bored with retirement and getting involved, what more can you want?  Except perhaps a manuscript of a hitherto unknown novel by George Orwell in the mix and enough surprising twists and turns in the plot to keep your heart rate up. Maitland at his best.