REVIEW: THE SHADOW YEAR BY HANNAH RICHELL

THE SHADOW YEAR

Author: Hannah Richell
Hachette RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Cover of The Shadow Year by Richell, Hannah

Secrets, lies, tragedy and betrayal … it was everything I wanted in a book and more. Two women, 30 years apart: a cottage hidden in England’s Peak District connects them, but how? That is the question readers will seek to answer as they piece together clues from a cleverly-knit dual narrative that races towards a stunning climax. Captivating and compelling, The Shadow Year is a must-read book for suspense lovers … and anyone who likes a cracking good story.

In 1980, as the sultry summer heat entices new adventures, Kat and her four roommates stumble upon an abandoned lakeside cottage hidden deep in the English countryside. Something about it calls to them: is it the awareness that they have the place all to themselves? The fact that it seems forgotten by the world? The opportunity to be free from the trappings of society? It doesn’t take a lot to convince them that here in this isolated paradise, they can live the way they like according to their own ideals, free of mortgages, rules and jobs. To the five friends, fresh from college and set to join the treadmill of the employed, it sounds both radical and exciting. It’s a chance to drop out of the system for a while and make the most of lazy summer days and intimate winter evenings. And it’s only for 12 months.

‘I’m talking about escaping the treadmill and establishing our own rules. This isn’t free-love-hippy-shit. This is the eighties – a whole new decade. We can submit to the system, or we can choose to live life our way – on our own terms.’ – Simon

Their experiment starts well. Over time, they move from acting as though they are on holiday to treating their new lifestyle as a serious endeavour. Systems are set in place for chores, with each party falling into a preferred role; a garden is established, and food and wood is stockpiled for the coming winter. Laziness is switched for work – they rise earlier to complete a long list of tasks essential to their survival. However, as the seasons change, tensions creep in and when Kat’s younger sister Freya turns up, the established dynamics are turned on their head.

Three decades later, Lila arrives at the same remote cottage. It’s been left to her by an anonymous benefactor and her curiosity is aroused. With her marriage in crisis, the little house seems like perfect place to escape to for a while, despite its neglected appearance; perhaps, she reasons, as she restores the house to a cosier condition, she might also restore her soul. It’s clear though that the previous inhabitants left in a hurry and she wonders about them. Who lived here? How did they cope with the isolation? Why did they leave in such a hurry? And why is the cottage hers now? Her questions begin to disturb her, as do findings that help piece together fragments of their story, but even more disturbing is the sense that someone is watching her.

There’s a lot to love about this book. The characterisation is spot on; Richell’s characters are intriguing, their conflicts real and raw. The atmosphere is bursting with a mixture of possibilities and menace; gradually the cottage takes on a life of its own, becoming almost like a character in its own right. It is the keeper of secrets, the holder of memories, a dual personality that can invoke tension, fear and discomfort or peace, hope and contentment. I love the Gothic echoes that underpin the story. Aside from that, the novel’s structure is sound and maintains a level of tension in the reader the whole way through. A clue is proffered … and just as quickly, it blurs. The ending is beautifully crafted, leaving the reader wondering. It reminds me a bit of the Du Maurier classic, Rebecca, where the reader is never 100 per cent certain of what has really transpired.

Reading The Shadow Year by Hannah Richell was one of those beautifully satisfying experiences in which the story is so engrossing, the suspense so taut, that the reader slips deep inside the pages only to emerge with a mix of reluctance and contentment. How is it possible that I missed the 2012 release of Richell’s debut, Secrets of the Tides? That is an oversight I intend to remedy sooner rather than later. If you haven’t read either of Richell’s books, I highly recommend (on the basis of this book) that you add them to your reading pile.

Available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. This copy was courtesy of Hachette.

Bookish treat: A decadent brownie. Just saw a picture of one and now that’s all I can think about!