There is a sense, as you plunge into biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s debut novel, Peculiar Ground, that you are in fact walking into a rare and spectacularly unique world.
That world is the estate of Wychwood, which we first encounter in the mid-seventeenth century when landscape architect John Norris is, under benignly-delivered but well thought out orders from his boss, Lord Woldingham, to sculpt a carefully-manicured facsimile of nature in the the Restoration style.
Surrounded by a wall, the idea is that Wychwood will become a sealed-off haven of sorts, a place where Lord and Lady Woldingham and the many people who circle in their orbit, from family members to society hangers-on to workers, can find a place of security and safety.
But when, asks Hughes-Hallett, in a theme that permeates the entire novel to judiciously considered effect, does an idyll become a prison?
As Peculiar Ground moves from the seventeenth century through to various years in the second half of the twentieth century (1961, 1973, 1989), we encounter a variety of people, all of whom are prisoners of some sort in worlds that are, to all intents and purposes, sanctified havens.
“Nell screwed up her eyes. Francesca thought, She used to do that before she spoke in seminars. Our minds may mature, but our bodies never really change their little tricks.
‘Well basically,’ said Nell. ‘I want to question the value of confinement. An enclosed community is toxic. It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.'” (P. 331)
To some extent, these havens do fulfill their purpose.
At the height of the Plague in the mid-1660s, when London is rife with pestilence and disease and refugees are streamed in numbers uncountable into the supposedly safer countryside, Wychwood becomes an actual walled-in place, cut off from the outside world.
It’s workers are brought inside the wall, as are close friends and family, and the gate shuttered, much as more modern people might do in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.
This is an apocalypse of sorts, and during the month that Wychwood is a cocooned ark, and the scourge of the Plague flows and ebbs outside until normalcy, such as it is, is restored, those inside the walls meditate on how their place of hiding is as much prison as haven.
As an outsider of sorts, Norris is the one who is best placed to remark on the duality of Wychwood, a split sense of identity that continues into the threads of the story that takes place some three hundred years later.
Time and again as we meet closeted queer, art dealer and supposed Russian spy Antony, lord and lady of the estate Christopher and Lil Rossiter, estate manager Hugo Lane, his wife Chloe and children Nell and Dickie, we are treated to the nuanced idea of how our lives are a series of possibilities and dead ends, place offering hope and safety and yet imprisonment and the stultifying sense of being enclosed, whether physically, emotionally or psychically.
Peculiar Ground is an illuminating exploration of the way we imprison ourselves, our relationships, our working and familial relationships and a host of other facets of our lives, and how hard it can be to escape these prisons once enacted.
The characters that people this sprawling, almost too-ambitious novel – I say “almost” because while it feels like too much is happening, Hughes-Hallett holds an amazing multiplicity of streams in tautly-compelling and marvellous tension – are not unlikable people.
They are deeply flawed but who of us aren’t?
No matter how we live our lives, there are going to be elements, many, many elements of our lives that are far from perfect, compromised by poor decision-making or simply innocuous tides of life or love that end up in places that defy our expectations of what they might be.
“‘The beetle said, “There are formidable defences. No one can enter Eden. But I do not see that there is anything to prevent us leaving.”
‘Said the mouse, “Since the transgressors were expelled, this place has gone to rack and ruin. No intelligent creature would wish to go into such a desolate place. There are no breadcrumbs here, and no cheese.”
‘And the beetle said, “There is a world elsewhere.”
‘And as he spoke he rubbed his forelegs together and he began to laugh.”” (P. 470)
As you lose yourself in the many time and character shifts of Peculiar Ground and encounter pagan beliefs, members of high and low society, friends and enemies, all with their own myriad needs, hopes and desires, it becomes readily apparent how much we lock ourselves away from the very best with wearily-trodden half-baked facsimiles but how we long, always long, for so much more.
That much becomes apparent as Hughes-Hallett weaves the stories of the inhabitants of Wychwood, and those adjacent to them, into the wider world, one they may seem closed off from but to which they are intimately connected, via the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and the Russian-backed society that gave it birth and sustained through years in which many people were imprisoned in a country that they also came to see as a haven too.
One person’s safe place becomes another’s prison and it’s never entirely obvious which is which or when; Hughes-Hallett beautifully elucidates how the two are often one and the same, often for the same person.
It’s a complicated world we inhabit and this is never more apparent than throughout the slow, laconically-brought forth, gorgeously-written world of Peculiar Ground where what you think you have is not necessarily what you end up with, and the lines between safety and not are often blurred, uncertain and prone to the shifting of perceptions upon which many of our lives, for better or worse, are built.