An award-winning historian (Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, 2013, etc.) makes her fiction debut with a story vast in scope but intimate in its details.
The year is 1663. England’s civil war has ended. Newly returned from exile, royalist Arthur Fortescue, the Earl of Woldingham, has hired the landscaper John Norris to turn his ancestral home into a private paradise. As he is drawn ever deeper into the life of Wychwood, Norris discovers that the Earl’s plan to enclose his new gardens, fountains, and tree-lined avenues within a wall will be a disaster for the religious dissenters who live and worship in the forest around the estate. The Earl’s land, Norris learns, is crisscrossed with secret paths used by people scorned and abused for their faith. When Hughes-Hallett brings the narrative 300 years into the future without first resolving this issue, the shift feels abrupt. But it soon becomes clear that the temporal leap makes perfect sense: the issue of the wall is unresolved because it is irresolvable. Who owns the land, who has right of way, what the very wealthy owe everyone else: these are questions that never go away. Hughes-Hallett explores how the past persists in other—more personal—ways as well. Relationships between masters and servants recapitulate themselves across generations. Family tragedies repeat with slight variations. Wychwood remains a world unto itself even as people come and go and the property changes hands. Time feels like a circle, and the novel brings us to 1989 before taking us back to the 17th century. There are multiple narrators and perspectives here, but the text never feels cacophonous because each voice is so exquisitely limned. Hughes-Hallett’s choice to turn minor players into major characters is especially satisfying; of course those who rely upon the wealthy and powerful must be canny observers of the wealthy and powerful. The novel is a pleasure to read for the loveliness of its language. It’s also a timely meditation on walls, on what they keep in and what they keep out.
A first novel stunning for both its historical sweep and its elegant prose.