Literary fiction and I have a somewhat uneasy relationship. I love elegant prose when it fits with the story being told, although I dislike the pretension that a book is either literary (and therefore ‘superior’ or ‘worthy’) or genre (and therefore of lesser value and not of interest to discerning readers). Themes explored in both literary and genre fiction can be remarkably similar, and sometimes genre fiction does a better job of immersing the reader in a time and a place than does the literary fiction equivalent. All that said, how does this particular literary interpretation of the dual-era historical novel stand up to examination?
Our story begins in the latter half of the seventeenth century, not long after the restoration of the monarchy; a time when those nobles who followed Charles II into exile are returning to their former homes and attempting to both get along with those who stayed behind – supporters of the Parliamentary faction for the most part – and show off the tastes they acquired while living abroad by remodelling their houses and estates in the latest fashionable styles.
One man making a name for himself amongst all those employed in ‘improving’ the countryside is John Norris, a landscaper who begins work on the estate at Wychwood and soon finds himself drawn into the complex tangle of familial and romantic relationships of its inhabitants: at the big house from which the estate draws its name, at the adjacent manor house – home to non-conformists who occupied the main house during the time of Oliver Cromwell – and in the surrounding villages. In particular, Norris is drawn to Cecily, the young woman living at Wood Manor with her mother. When the plague decimates London, those leaving the city for the safety of surrounding counties are accused of bringing infection to Wychwood and refused help from all but Cecily and her allies. Norris’ world is turned upside down once again by the consequences of these actions.
In a parallel story, we see the late twentieth century inhabitants of Wychwood and its environs through a series of house parties and other gatherings, and watch as external events both shape the guests and are affected in small parts by the involvement of some of those whose lives we are observing. The two stories are linked both by the roles played by walls that divide communities: that built around Wychwood in the 1660s and that built across Berlin in the 1960s, and by the parts of the landscape created in Norris’ time that are still recognisable 300 years later.
This novel had a lot of potential and some intriguing plot ideas. Sadly, however, the characters – particularly those in the twentieth century story – failed to hold my attention. This was definitely a case where genre fiction might have done better at exploring the same themes and subplots. Others’ impressions may vary: it certainly gets more stars on average on GoodReads than I’ve awarded it there.
In the 17th century, a wall is built around the deer park of a great house. Wychwood is a world in itself, its ornamental lakes and majestic avenues planned by Mr Norris, a master of the new art of landscaping. A world where, after decades of civil war, everyone has something to hide or something to fear, where dissidents hide in the forest and Londoners fleeing the plague are at the gate.
Three centuries later, one hot weekend, there is a house party at Wychwood. Over the course of the weekend another wall goes up, dividing Berlin. Erotic entanglements blur with distant rumours of historic changes and a little girl, Nell, observes all.
As Nell grows up and as the Berlin Wall falls, the world splits again. There are TV cameras in the dining room, golf-buggies in the park and a Great Storm brewing. A fatwa alerts Westerners to a new ideological faultline. A refugee from the new conflict, the one which is still tearing us apart, seeks safety in Wychwood.
From the author of The Pike, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize, the Costa Biography Award, comes a feast of a book. Peculiar Ground is a breathtakingly ambitious, beautifully written novel about young love and the pathos of aging, about game keepers and aristos, agitators and witches, about fantasies of magic and the reality of the land, and about frontiers and fortresses and secret gardens.
Listen to an excerpt.