BookBrowse Reviews Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

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Peculiar Ground

by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett X
Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2019, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Cynthia C. Scott
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The themes in Peculiar Ground, of emotional and physical barriers between people, are as resonant today as they were hundreds of years ago.

"An enclosed community is toxic...The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in." These words are spoken by Nell Lane, one of many characters in Peculiar Ground. The closed community Nells refers to is Wychwood, an English garden estate built during the seventeenth century, but it could really be any place at any time. Border walls have become the solution to immigration for many and the kind of toxicity their proponents want to trap within them are all too obvious in contemporary political debates. The characters in Hughes-Hallet's historical novel aren't quite as obvious in their toxicity but are just as damaging in their desire to close themselves off from the world.

Peculiar Ground covers a lot of historical and emotional territory. The story begins in 1663, when a wall is built to seal Wychwood and its estate away from the unrest caused by the plague and the British Civil Wars; winds through the twentieth century with the rise of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and its fall in 1989, and finally travels back to 1665.

At the novel's outset, John Norris, a seventeenth century landscaper, is hired to design the Wychwood estate. After the estate owner's son drowns while swimming in a pond, Norris is thrust into local intrigue that involves witchcraft, politics, the plague, and violence.

Nearly three hundred years later, a new set of owners, Christopher and Lil Rossiter, and their various friends, associates, and lovers erect their own walls as they get caught up in political intrigue, world events occurring in Berlin, affairs, unrequited desires, crumbling marriages, career ambitions, and social standing. As a young girl growing up on the estate, Nell Lane witnesses these entanglements, unable to understand "the brilliant negatives of shadows cast by adulthood," but as she grows older and experiences her own romances, marriage, and motherhood, she becomes an astute observer of human foibles.

Then there's Selim Malik, a Pakistani student with whom Nell has a brief flirtation in college, who is forced to flee Pakistan and leave his family behind after he writes an editorial defending a novel deemed heretical by Islamic radicals (though Hughes-Hallett doesn't name the novel in question, it brings to mind The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie). After settling in Wychwood, Selim finds himself trapped between cultural and geographical walls as he hides in fear for his life and tries to adapt to a new home. Selim, like Nell and Antony and unlike the other characters in Peculiar Ground who are blinded by social class and ambitions, is self-aware enough to know about the walls that can entrap people and limit their possibilities for happiness. As Selim observes: "There are no nations, only places. Everything mingles. Bird, gazebos, assassins. You can't keep them out."

At 446 pages long, the novel can be very exacting in its determination to lay out its themes, following a cast of characters as they fall in and out of love, marry, divorce, grow up, become parents, and bury loved ones. It is beautifully written and smartly observed, but the book gets bogged down in parts. With sixty-four characters, including family dogs, it is hard keeping track of everyone; thankfully Hughes-Hallett includes a list of characters. Readers are rewarded with themes that are as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago.

Peculiar Ground offers a glimmer of possibilities for how lives without borders might actually be lived.

Reviewed by Cynthia C. Scott

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2018, and has been updated for the January 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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