Set in a fading family estate nestled within the Chiltern Hills, this is the story of two summers, sixty years apart, woven together to reveal one dramatic family story.
I’ve been waiting for a new novel from Hannah Richell for a long time, having absolutely adored her two earlier novels, The Shadow Year and Secrets of the Tides. I got a real stomach flip of excitement when I saw this book with its gorgeous cover and intriguing title.
Like her earlier books, The Peacock Summer is a parallel narrative that moves between the stories of two women. It begins in Sydney in contemporary times, when Maggie learns of the illness of her beloved grandmother Lillian. Maggie goes back home to Cloudesley, her grandmother’s home in the Chiltern Hills, only to find the old manor house falling into ruin. Lillian is not strong, and there is no money left for the upkeep of the estate. To make matters worse, Maggie needs to face up to the consequences of actions in her past which have made her an outcast in the village.
Hannah Richell’s writing is swift and elegant and a pleasure to read, and she is masterful at lacing the narrative with atmosphere and suspense:
“She runs a hand over the huge, faded tapestry hanging across the wall – then turns to climb the curved staircase to her own room. Halfway up she stops and listens. There is no scrabble of dog paws on the tiled floor, no shuffle of newspaper pages from the library, no distant murmur from her grandmother’s radio. There is nothing; not even the glug of water moving through old pipes. This house, that has witnessed so much throughout the years – dinner parties and laughter, conversation and arguments, dancing and music – a house that had seen so much life, had so many people pass through its doors, stands utterly silent. It is unnerving to be its only occupant. What echoes would she hear – what stirrings from the past – if she only knew what to listen for?
Her eyes fall upon the grandfather clock in the hall and she turns and heads back down the stairs, blowing dust from the cabinet to wind it the way Lillian once showed her. She watches with a certain satisfaction as the pendulum begins to sway, a steady tick rising up out of the old clock like a resuscitated heart beating in a chest. One small thing corrected.
She doesn’t want to think yet of all the the wrongs she still needs to set right.”
The story then moves to her grandmother’s point-of-view. Lillian is in her mid-20s and married to the lord of the manor, a handsome powerful man named Charles Oberon. Yet she feels stifled and unhappy. One day her husband hires a talented young artist to paint the walls of a room in Cloudesley. His name is Jack, and he and Lillian fall in love. Yet it’s an impossible dream. Lillian is tapped by duty and obligation, and Charles is not a man to let go of what he holds.
Back and forth the two stories weave, touching lightly across the decades as Maggie begins to learn her grandmother’s long-held secrets as she struggles to save the house she loves. It’s a story of Maggie’s personal growth and change, as well as a story of mysteries and revelations, and I adored it just as much as I had hoped.