Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancé Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey – an atmospheric historical drama and the perfect ‘quiet’ read

I recently came upon a post on Twitter asking readers to name their favourite ‘quiet’ books.. Among the recommendations were lots of my favourites and quite a few more I’d not heard of. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was there, and Barbara Pym, as well as Anne Tyler and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April. And I thought, yes these are the authors that I read again and again. Now I can add The Narrow Land to the list – a book about the small dramas of people thrown together on Cape Cod during the summer of 1950.

Among the cast of characters is Ed Hopper. He’s the much-loved American painter who produced similarly quiet pictures of people and cars and architecture, the most famous of which is probably Nighthawks, showing late-night customers at a city diner. Ed and his wife Jo live in New York with a holiday house at Cape Cod. They make an odd couple, he’s very tall, quiet, solemn even, while she’s short, emotional and talkative. When we meet them they are in their sixties. Ed has the artist’s version of writer’s block; Jo anxiously quizzing him about possible subject matter, while regretting the sacrifice of her own artistic ambitions to further Ed’s career.

We also meet Michael, the ten-year-old German orphan adopted by a kindly New York couple after their own son’s death. He is sent for two weeks’ holiday with the Kaplans, a well-to-do family who support the charity that has rescued orphans like Michael. Mrs Kaplan is a Lady Bountiful type of character who is renting a large house on the cape with her daughter, Katherine, who is ill, and her glamorous daughter-in-law, the widow of Mrs K’s only son. As well as enjoying the benefits of a holiday by the sea, Michael will be company for Mrs K’s grandson, Richie.

Michael has plenty of demons – memories of the horrors of his war, the loss of his nationality, his language, but also the fear that his new parents won’t want him back – they are moving house and expecting another child. Then there’s fitting in with the tony Kaplans, knowing what to say and do. Richie, soon to be despatched to a new boarding school is chatty and excessively well-mannered, but also suffering the loss of his father.

When Jo tries to shoo the Kaplan’s from the beach in front of the Hoppers’ house, what begins as a seemingly awful social gaffe becomes the catalyst that throws the two households together. Everyone’s intrigued to meet Ed, who cringes at the thought of social engagements. But it’s the two lost and lonely boys who seem to connect with the artist and his wife. While Jo tries to make up with the Kaplans for her earlier bad manners, Ed roams around looking at buildings, their windows and doorways, sketching, walking and thinking. There’s a woman too whose image he can’t quite shake and feels he’s seen her somewhere around here before.

The Narrow Land is a slow burn of a read, with chapters named after some of the planets in Holst’s famous suite, a record loved by both Ed and Katherine. Stars are aligning, perhaps. Little by little, we get to know the characters and they are all written with immense sympathy though each have their faults. Against this, the wider story of the middle twentieth century and an America rebuilding after the war, while a new war in Korea is on the horizon. The characters are also battling it out – Ed and Jo bicker and walk out on each other, Michael and Richie don’t get along either. Only Katherine can soothe the troubled waters it seems, but she’s got her own battle on her hands.

In the background you have the Cape Cod summer, the wind riffling through the long grass, the boats on the water, the long, languid evenings. Did I mention this is also the perfect winter read? I particularly enjoyed the insight you get into Ed Hopper’s paintings, his artist’s eye, his struggles to find the right subject matter. Visual images, music and lingering scents of cigarettes and cologne add to the immediacy of the book, often seen through Michael’s point of view, the perfect impressionable young narrator.

The Narrow Land is an accomplished and spell-binding drama, easily a five out of five from me. It’s also the 2020 recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and as such qualifies for one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat winter reading programme: Read a Prize Winning Book. Put this ‘quiet’ novel on your to-read list.

Man Booker Prize Musings

The Man Booker Prize is one of the highlights of the serious reader’s year. So when the long list comes out, as it did a couple of weeks ago, people begin to speculate. (Click here for the 2021 list.) I wish I was enough of a serious reader to read more of them and, in a mood to see what I may have missed, trawled through a list of previous winners. It was heartening to find I’d read quite a few so I’ve listed a few of my personal highlights.

Favourite Man Booker winners:
A tricky one this as they are so varied, but the most memorable for me are as follows:


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
This one’s special because it has an interesting historical background, loaded with atmospheric physical settings (Italy and the Egyptian desert), four complex and interesting main characters, a tragic love affair and gorgeous writing. You can tell Ondaatje is a fairly decent poet, the way he paints images with words.

Possession by A S Byatt (1990)
This dual time-frame novel about academic rivalry is subtitled ‘a romance’, but it is also a brilliant mystery. Two young academics – one English and one American, follow a paper trail to discover a little known romantic entanglement between two Victorian poets (loosely based on Christina Rossetti and possibly Tennyson or Browning). Terrific plotting makes this intelligent read hard to put down.

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
This novel follows the Hegarty family as it comes together for a funeral in Ireland for one of its sons, Liam, who has taken his own life. Its narrator, Veronica, is also rather damaged and speculates about things that happened in the past to cause the death. An intelligent novel which looks at the human psyche and family interaction told in Enright’s unmistakably dry tone that is such a pleasure to read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
One of the longer books on the list at 688 pages, yet for me it just whizzed by, bringing the court of Henry VIII to life and in particular, his man for getting stuff done, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel has a style you either love or hate, which is very vivid, present tense and right in Cromwell’s head.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
I reviewed this book last January and still think about it – click Milkman for the post.

More Man Booker Mentions:
In 1986, Margaret Atwood’s shortlisted title, The Handmaid’s Tale, lost out to Kingsley Amis’s novel, The Old Devils.

I have read four of the shortlisted titles the year Iris Murdoch won the prize for The Sea, The Sea in 1978. My best effort yet, but remember I’ve had over forty years to get there. Including the winner, the other titles are: God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam; Jake’s Thing by Kingsley Amis and The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The longest Man Booker Prize winner I’ve read is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which won in 2013, and which took a bit of an effort, I must admit. I read the first half quickly and began to tire towards the end, but enjoyed it over all.

The shortest Man Booker Prize winner I have read is Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (at 140 pages) which won in 1979. Although without a word count, it is difficult to be sure as 2011’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is only 10 pages longer. If you factor in typography and layout, Barnes might pip Fitzgerald to the post for making every word count.

If you have any personal Man Booker favourites or interesting asides, do drop in with a comment.

Book Review: Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

When winter starts to bite, there’s nothing like a book cover showing a summery scene to make you want to pick it up. Kathleen MacMahon’s latest book, Nothing But Blue Sky describes a succession of summer holidays spent abroad, mostly on the sunny Costa Brava. 

David Dowling is recently bereaved – his wife, Mary Rose, killed in a plane crash while she was on her way to a wedding. Ever since they were newly married, the couple have holidayed at the same Spanish seaside town, visiting the same restaurant over the years, the same bar for their pre-dinner aperitif. They’ve people watched, making up stories in particular about a glamorous French family.

In many ways, this is the story of a marriage. David is a cynical foreign correspondent, who doubts his capacity for happiness. His parents seemed to live in a loveless marriage, his father bullying his mother, just as his older brother bullied David. When David meets Mary Rose, he is swept up into the world of his girlfriend’s family, a home full of joy and conversation and people who actually seem to like each other. David discovers another way to live, but can’t quite shake off his inner doubts, his bad cop to Mary Rose’s good cop routine.

When Mary Rose dies, David’s grief is all-consuming. He revisits the events of his marriage – Mary Rose’s goodness and optimism, their childlessness, the way they just seemed to gel, their disagreements. The book weaves their story together in chapters that read a little like a succession of short stories highlighting different aspects of their relationship.

A summer holiday with friends, soon after the air crash, is a miserable affair for David, so he bravely takes himself off to Aiguaclara one more time, and the possibility of starting again takes shape. 

MacMahon draws you slowly into the novel, and in David has created a brilliant character study. How do you deal with feelings, when you’ve spent a lot of your life suppressing them? David is a difficult character but oddly likeable, and you want him to learn a little empathy and trust. This is such a sensitive portrayal about love and loss, about happiness and grief, nuanced and yet also very entertaining. 

The book reminded me a little of novels I’ve read by Anne Enright as well as Andrea Levy. I can’t wait to read more by MacMahon. Nothing But Blue Sky earns a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Clare Chambers writes the kind of novel that I particularly like, finding the unique in ordinary characters, rounded out with gorgeous writing full of perception and wit. We hadn’t had anything new from her for a while, so when Small Pleasures appeared I let out a whoop of joy and wasn’t in the least surprised to see the book make the Women’s Prize for Fiction long-list. And of course, when I got my hands on a copy, I devoured it.

Small Pleasures is set in southern England in 1957 and is based around two unrelated events which really happened that year. The first is a rail disaster introduced on the first page of the book as a newspaper report dated 6 December, in which two trains collided in thick fog, leaving 80 dead and many more wounded. But over the page we skip back to June with another story from the North Kent Echo, which is where Jean Swinney works as a reporter.

It’s a small piece on parthenogenesis under the dramatic headline: Men No Longer Needed for Reproduction! Scientists have been studying reproduction in frogs and rabbits, the story says, developing embryos without fertilisation by sperm, and hinting at the possibility that this could take place in larger mammals, even humans. The article elicits a mailbag full of letters, including one from a Mrs Tilbury who states her daughter was born ‘without the involvement of any man’.

Jean’s role on the paper is largely what might once have been called the ‘women’s pages’ – household hints and reports on weddings. Not surprisingly, she’s tasked with making contact with Mrs T – the nature of the story is a bit too delicately feminine for the mostly male newsroom. Jean soon warms to Gretchen Tilbury and her daughter and learns that in the months around young Margaret’s date of conception, Gretchen was a teenager suffering from immobilising rheumatoid arthritis and the patient of a nursing home.

As Jean tries to piece together the facts around Margaret’s birth, encouraging the mother and daughter to take part in a scientific study, her world is suddenly expanded by the Tilburys’ friendship, including Mr Tilbury – Howard – who is kindly and perceptive. She visits the family out of office hours, which is often problematic as Jean also cares for a malingering, agoraphobic mother in a kind of genteel poverty. Theirs is a life of small pleasures indeed.

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands …

We are definitely in post-war Britain here. London is the victim of those terrible pea-soup fogs, and unmarried women are expected to look after ageing parents, relinquishing their independence. People are always making do with less it seems. Even Jean’s handy hints column is a little depressing:

Never throw away an old plastic mackintosh. The hood cut off will make a useful toilet bag. The large back panel may be used to line a suitcase to ensure safety from damp should the case get wet when travelling.

But as Jean begins to enjoy her new friendships – a godmotherly relationship with Margaret, as well as the possibility of happiness of a deeper kind – the reader cannot quite forget the image of that rail crash reported on page one. Sooner or later that event is going to raise its ugly head, a bit like Chekov’s gun. For me this gave the book an almost unbearable suspense, and the pages flew by.

Small Pleasures is a brilliant novel if you like stories about lives of quiet desperation told with charm and understanding – Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler spring to mind. I felt absolutely wretched for Jean at times, hopeful at others. Chambers always makes you really care about her characters and I finished the book knowing that the story will stay with me for days afterwards, and it has. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Historical Novels in the Spotlight: The Walter Scott Shortlist

Being a lover of historical fiction, the Walter Scott Prize is a highlight of my reading year, bringing to my attention some stunning new authors and reminding me of some old favourites. This year’s shortlist has already got a couple of books on my To-Read List, but the others look amazing as well. And three of the short-listed books are by Australian authors, which is also pretty interesting. Here’s a quick summary.

First among the Aussies is The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte. During the German invasion of Russia in WWII, Paul Bauer is the doctor tasked to set up a field hospital at the former estate of Leo Tolstoy. Evoking the French invasion under Napoleon which is a key element in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the story describes Paul’s troubled relationship with hostile, aristocratic Katerina, and the unhinged behaviour of Paul’s commanding officer. ‘A poignant, bittersweet love story – and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world,’ says the blurb. Sounds a goodie to me.

The second Aussie novelist to make the list (we’re strictly alphabetical here) is old hand Kate Grenville and her new book A Room Made of Leaves. The book is a kind of imagined memoir by Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of a notorious Sydney wool baron back during the early colonial days, describing her marriage to a ruthless bully. The book gives her a voice and according to the blurb is ‘a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented’. Grenville who penned the terrific Secret River trilogy, is brilliant at colonial history, but is an original writer too, so it’s not surprising this book has made the lists of several book prizes.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel is the final book in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was the guy that made things happen for Henry VIII – his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s becoming the head of the Church of England, and so on. Mantel has a vivid present tense style which makes the history all come alive and shows Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to immense power, from all sides. The last book will deal with his downfall, which probably won’t be pretty, and which is why, in spite of enjoying the previous two in the trilogy, I have yet to pick up the third. But it’s only a matter of time. Once I start reading, I know I’ll be hooked.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell describes events when William Shakespeare is away working in London and his twin children fall ill with a fever. Like many of O’Farrell’s novels Hamnet is sure to be original and difficult to describe so here is what the publisher says about it: ‘It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.’ This sounds mesmerising and since I always enjoy Maggie O’Farrell’s novels this one’s been on my To-Read List for a wee while.

Finally, with our third Aussie contender, we’ve The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It’s the story of Esme, daughter of one of the compilers of the first ever Oxford English Dictionary. Motherless and left to her own devices, Esme decides to gather together all the words the compilers leave out of the dictionary for being in some way ‘objectionable’. Words like ‘bondmaid’ are tossed aside. This and other discards seem to relate to women or the lower classes. The story is set at the time of the women’s suffrage movement and with a world war looming, we know all sorts of social change is just around the corner. As a person who always likes to have an OED to hand and having heard great things about it, I’m eager to read this one. And another pretty cover too.