It is 1980 and five university students coming to the end of their studies are facing the uncertainty of their future. In the haze of summer they decide to head out on a day trip to a lakeside cottage tucked away in the English Peak District. Here, Kat, Simon, Carla, Ben and Mac make a pact to stay in the derelict cottage for a year, living according to the seasons, hidden away and surviving on whatever nature provides. The temptation of a simple life appeals and lying in the summer sun, soothed by the shimmer of the nearby lake, the idyllic property seems like a perfect place to spend a gap year. They believe it will be a utopian escape from adult responsibility, but as the summer moves into autumn an unexpected visitor arrives, changing the dynamics among the five friends. The bitter chill of winter sets in and living on the land challenges not only their physical survival but also the survival of friendships. Allegiances shift as the weather moves through its cycle. The lake remains the only constant in the landscape, seemingly watching and waiting:
It sits like a glittering blue eye, surrounded on all sides by fringes of woodland and the steep grassy hills. It’s as though they have fallen into a secret valley – one cloaked in an air of strange, blissful solitude.
An innocent adventure takes on a more ominous feel as the characters’ different agendas begin to surface. Kat yearns to belong and her love for Simon, the group’s self-elected leader, becomes an obsession. Simon is the puppet-master of the group and he knows he has nothing to lose from the adventure, as there is always the family law firm to fall back on. To him, the year is about game-playing and keeping control over the others. Carla and Ben are the carefree lovers; Ben is a happy-go-lucky stoner who adores his gorgeous and even-tempered girlfriend Carla. Mac is unreadable, always watching quietly and keeping to himself. As the seasons move from the bountiful to the barren, a sense of foreboding settles in, creating an undercurrent that is tinged with a disquieting malevolence
Thirty years later, Lila arrives at the same cottage, bequeathed to her by an unknown benefactor. She is recovering from the loss of her baby, born prematurely because of a fall that she has no clear memory of. This grief has shattered her relationship with her husband, Tom, and she decides time spent renovating the cottage might just be the project to heal her all-consuming sadness. There is still evidence of the previous inhabitants, suggesting they left the tumbledown cottage in haste – a bullet hole in a wooden beam in the kitchen, a Moses basket, a scrawl of figures inked on a bedroom wall. Lila wonders who had owned the cottage and little by little tries to uncover its secrets. As the story of the five friends unfolds, it begins to overlap with Lila’s story, revealing the tragic history that eventually delivers answers to the niggling questions in her own life.
The ideas of Thoreau, particularly his writings in Walden, are at the core of the story – an idealistic attempt to live within the natural world, wholly and completely. However, this naïve experiment is ripped apart by the complexity and unpredictability of human nature that, unlike the ever-constant lake, moves like quicksilver, pushed by the extremes of survival.
Richell’s writing is laden with lavish and detailed descriptions of the physical landscape that also work to signpost the internal landscape of the characters:
She perches on the makeshift seat and smooths her fingers across a gnarly old knot in the wood. It is a strange almond-shaped whorl with a dark teardrop falling from one corner. The closer she looks, the more she sees the knot’s startling resemblance to a weeping eye, there at the very centre of the trunk.
As with Richell’s first book, Secrets of the Tides, this landscape is portrayed with a sense of immense power – the power to nurture and recharge but also the power to destroy. And the deft spinning of the thread of suspense is one of Richell’s gifts as a writer. She knows when to reel the story in to maintain the tension throughout the novel.
The Shadow Year is a page-turner with a chilling and unexpected mystery at its heart. This is a story of resolution – all strands of the plot are neatly tied, plenty of cryptic clues are scattered throughout to keep readers guessing right to the end. All the puzzle pieces fall neatly into place among some compelling twists and turns that will immerse you in the unravelling tale. It does feel, at times, that some of these pieces are too conveniently fitted into spaces, pushing the boundaries of believability – Kat’s calculating obsession with Simon, which isn’t always wholly convincing; the impassiveness of the characters under the dogmatic and autocratic Simon; the reveal of the owner of the cottage – but these are mere niggles in the face of Richell’s earnest and heartfelt storytelling.
Hannah Richell The Shadow Year Hachette Australia 2013 PB 416pp $29.99
Jody Lee is a freelance book editor who generally prefers mountains to lakes.
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