...a dazzling historical novel with timely resonances for the Trumpian present ... This large cast and considerable expanse of time demand a complicated structure and expert juggling. The author is up to the job ... Their voices, some flowery and mature, others young and modern, are beautifully nuanced, the syntax appropriate to period, gender, class, and personality. The prose is uniformly gorgeous ... Treated to such a brilliant, ambitious mixture of actual history and creative invention, the determined reader, however daunted by the novel’s enormous scale, will turn the last page rewarded, delighted, and eager for Hughes-Hallett’s next.
In her clever, many-layered debut novel, Lucy Hughes-Hallett casts a historian’s panoramic eye over human walls of every kind, from the biblical Jericho to postwar Berlin ... In this novel her observation of the societies of both her chosen eras, Stuart and present-day, is sophisticated and erudite ... In the breadth of her historical vision and her fastidious particularity, Ms. Hughes-Hallett is a natural heir to A.S. Byatt, delivering a densely patterned novel that shimmers with human interest as it probes our cultural story ... Even if this seems a bit too schematic, the author never shies from large themes, and usually makes the most of them.
...this large and rich kitchen sink of a novel (as in everything but) is full of drama, vivid characters, wit, gorgeous writing and fascinating botanical, religious and social detail ... If you’re not quite sure how to draw your plot to a close, try an act of nature, a flood or a windstorm. After all, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot did it. Still, Peculiar Ground, with its witches and aristocrats, its highly educated men, women and children, and its gradations of every conceivable social type between upstairs and downstairs, is a grand spectacle.
While the prose is beautifully studded and excels in arresting, delicate metaphors ('A thousand spiders had made of the lawn an expanse of lace'), the story itself is long and somewhat perplexing midstride ... The overall effect is one of an enormously ambitious novel...which arrests readers with its complex, non-linear plotline and occasionally demands too much of them in the process ... All in all, while admiring the author's descriptive talent and impressive historical scope, the reader feels a measure of relief when the lengthy book ends and s/he is no longer obliged to wander across the ancient tussock of a land well named Peculiar Ground.
Think of it as a saga of a place depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th, eras of change and transformation ... With its clever juxtaposition of past and present and its meditation on time and change, Peculiar Ground is reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. Walls and people come and go. Place abides.
In the novel’s favor, I can say that it shows a fine sense of time and place in each venue, and there are some terrific set pieces ... A number of images are truly arresting, one being a waterfront street ending at a great wall of steel: the vast hull of a ship rising to inconceivable heights. There are, too, a couple of excellently drawn self-important characters, though their time on the stage is sadly brief. All in all, however, the story has an awful rattle of devices: the recurrent theme of walls, random echoes of the past, some portentous stories-within-stories, and that truly irksome mosaic — which is meant, it is suggested, to explain . . . something. Rather than pulling the story together, these literary maneuvers serve to diminish it, making it serve as a showcase, while the plot itself becomes a litter of miscellaneous parts.
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.
Hughes-Hallett effectively expands the domestic drama to touch on class resentment, religious conflict, and international affairs. Her Wychwood is a remarkable, ambivalent creation, 'at once a sanctuary and place of internment,' and readers will delight at strolling its grounds under her guidance.