Secrets, Lies and Deceptions in Elizabethan England.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by
Paula Hawkins: really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The
alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.
Granny: Your only sister, all alone in the wood, and nobody there to save her. Poor little lamb.
Rosaleen: Why couldn’t she save herself?
Rosaleen: And then they lived happily ever after?
Granny: Indeed they did not!
Rosaleen: Is that all you left of her? Your kind can’t stomach hair, can you? Even if the worst wolves are hairy on the inside.
I discovered Black Rabbit Hall on an outing to the Blue Mountains, after finishing my train book on the journey up. Fellow bibliophiles will understand my panicked dash to the local bookshop before my city train was due. Browsing in Blackheath’s Gleebooks, I picked up Black Rabbit Hall with its intriguing title and lovely cover design. I was instantly hooked by the synopsis: mysterious Cornish mansion near creepy woods, the shadow of the past creeping into the present, family secrets held over decades – exactly the sort of book I love to read and write. Also the blurb by acclaimed Tasmanian John Harwood – who has achieved international success with his literary Gothic novels The Ghost Writer, The Séance and The Asylum – decided me. I’d never heard of Eve Chase, which isn’t surprising as Black Rabbit Hall is her debut novel, but it was proof that you don’t necessarily need glossy author photos and a large publicity campaign to sell a book. Sometimes the product sells itself. My trip back down the mountain passed in a blur as I lost myself in the world of Black Rabbit Hall. I was disappointed to find myself back in Central Station in Sydney, as I wanted to keep reading. The books parallel storyline is set between the 1960s and the present day. Lorna Smith in the present-day thread is scouting a suitable venue for her wedding, and finds herself drawn to the mysterious, crumbling, faded gentry beauty of Pencraw House (Black Rabbit Hall) against her fiancée’s wishes.
In the 1960s thread, the Alton Family, who spend country holidays at Black Rabbit Hall, suffer a tragedy. Life for the Alton children alters forever, and the families destiny entangles with Lorna Smith’s in the present day thread. Black Rabbit Hall is an intrinsically English novel, and does remind me in tone of Dodie Smith’s, I Capture the Castle. The 1960s thread, narrated by the very likeable Amber Alton, is strong and I revelled in the description of the the kitchen at Black Rabbit Hall, with ‘cornflower-blue walls – blue to keep the flies away – and a larder with broken lock. Bread dough rising in china bowls like pregnant bellies: pig guts soaking in salted water before being stuffed and turned into hog’s pudding; tin buckets writhing with conger eels, buckets of crabs.’ And Cornish food such as the dreaded ‘Kiddly’ broth. Eve Chase deftly brings the mysterious hall, with its groaning pipes, black and white tiled hall and constant power cuts to life with lines such as: ‘drawers stuffed with all manner of odd things: ration books, gas masks, a loaded pistol, a sheaf of golden curls from a dead baby, who, Daddy says, would have been our great-aunt had she lived. Oh yes, and Princess Margaret’s glove. That’s about as exciting as it gets.’
I enjoyed the slightly surreal touches, such as the image of vast amount of rabbits around the hall at dusk. The hall faces west, and the silhouetted rabbits resemble shadow puppets, giving Pencraw House its name. Time is ‘syrupy slow,’ none of the clocks work properly, and nobody seems to care.
It’s a beautifully written page-turner. My only very slight gripe was that the ending was a little too tidy and happy-ever-after for my taste, but I loved the journey into Black Rabbit Hall and it has stayed with me. This is one of those plot-driven story books that you want to gobble up, and keep the pages turning past the witching hour. I look forward to reading Eve’s next novel. Black Rabbit Hall is published by Michael Joseph. “If Daphne Du Maurier and Ruth Rendell in Barbara Vine mode had been able to collaborate, they might have come up with something like Black Rabbit Hall: Rebecca meets A Fatal Inversion, so to speak. But Eve Chase is very much her own novelist, as fascinated by the varieties of love and affection that hold families together as by the forces that can tear them apart. A remarkable debut from an exceptionally talented and accomplished author.” —John Harwood, author of The Ghost Writer Eve’s website can be found HERE All images in this post with the exception of my train book photo via Eve’s Pinterest Inspiration boards. HERE.
Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:
“A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger – books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…
One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up – she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book. And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.
And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death – for a story?”
And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto – they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.
I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind…
We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial – the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armour, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape – and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.
Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it – that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape – escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.