Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett review – a well-marshalled family saga

The biographer has turned her hand to fiction with this accomplished ensemble tale set on a single English estate through the ages

You can’t help wondering if Lucy Hughes-Hallett realised, when she began her first novel, how prescient its themes would turn out to be. Peculiar Ground is concerned with walls and borders, and the significance of land – what it means to appropriate it, to enclose it, to fence certain people in or out; ideas that feel particularly pertinent in the present.

Hughes-Hallett has already enjoyed critical acclaim as a biographer; her third and most recent book, The Pike, a life of Gabriele D’Annunzio, won the Samuel Johnson prize and the Costa biography award in 2013. She might have been expected to attempt a repeat of this success, but instead she announced her intention to become “the world’s oldest first-time novelist”. At 65, she hasn’t quite broken the record, but it seems extraordinary that she should have taken so long to come to fiction, when she writes so instinctively with a novelist’s imagination.

Peculiar Ground is an ambitious and accomplished debut that follows four centuries of English life through the eyes of an ensemble cast, in a narrative that switches between historical periods and characters and from first to third person, intercut with letters, newspaper articles and snatches of dialogue arranged like a play script.

At its centre is Wychwood, an Oxfordshire country house and estate remodelled after the Restoration by John Norris, a landscape designer charged with reshaping nature in a park newly enclosed by a vast wall. “I wonder, are we making a second paradise here, or a prison?” Norris asks the architect, who replies that their employer, Lord Woldingham, “…has been out, as a vagabond is out. Now, it seems, he chooses to be walled in.”

Tragedy arrives quickly at Wychwood in this first part, which works as a prelude to the 20th-century story, and introduces a hint of mysticism that echoes through the following sections, reinforcing the idea that Wychwood is a place of myth and enchantment, separate from the outside world. From Norris’s 1663 account the narrative jumps to 1961, beginning with a house party thrown by the current landowners, Lil and Christopher Rossiter. There is an edge of anxiety among their guests; local activists demand the restoration of an ancient right of way across Wychwood park, threatening a breach in their secure enclosure, while in Berlin half a city is walled off and turned into a prison overnight.

“Frontiers are drawn on maps as lines, but in experience they are broad smudges, gradual transitions… Yet here was a nation throwing up a palpable wall along an impalpable division. It was eerie. The materialisation of the imaginary. A haunting.”

Meanwhile, Wychwood’s guests and residents struggle with the desire to transcend or shore up more personal borders. Further sections take them through 1973 and 1989, to the fall of the Wall. They grow up, grow old, fall in and out of love, betray friendships and countries, defy tradition or make a commercial enterprise of it. In 1989 the estate is opened to the public and rented out for a TV show to make ends meet; one older regular, Antony, laments the intrusion: “The trippers and shoppers and weekend renters are a host of Gorgons. The thing they come to see is killed stone-dead by their gaze… But Woldingham made something precious here, something that is now, or so it feels to me, being unmade.”

Hughes-Hallett marshals her large cast with sensitivity, succeeding in making even her minor players invite empathy. The fragmentary, non-linear style that made The Pike so original also works well here to create a polyphonic narrative, and she has a sharp ear for dialogue that allows her characters to sound distinctive and convincing, though I found myself most immersed in the 1663 sections, which are recounted by a single voice.

At times it feels that she tries to cover too much ground, but the novel is rich with detail, made vivid by meticulous research. The result leaves you hoping that this late conversion to fiction will prove only the beginning.

• Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett is published by Fourth Estate (£16.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

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