The Shadow Year
Borrowed from a friend
On a hot day in the summer of 1980, five housemates who are just graduating university head up to a lake in the English countryside. Ben, Carla, Simon, Kat and Mac. It is Mac who dimly remembers the location from somewhere he visited as a child and it is Mac who drives as the rest squish into the car and complain about the heat. When they arrive, the lake and its small, rundown cottage is utterly idyllic. It gives the charismatic Simon an idea.
None of them know what they want to do with their lives – except Ben and Simon are reluctant to go and start working as an engineer and a lawyer respectively. Simon suggests that they move to this abandoned cottage and live “off the grid” – fix it up, grow their own produce, live off the land. Just for one year, to see if they can do it. Get back to a simpler existence. He manages to convince the others one by one and they pool their cash to buy some necessities and make the move to the country.
At first it is everything Simon promised them it would be and then some. But as the warm summer months turn to a harsh winter, when an unexpected visitor drops in and throws out the group dynamic, things start to change. It seems that nothing is simple anymore and there will be far reaching consequences for their year of living simply.
Thirty years later in the present day, Lila receives a letter from a solicitor to say she’s inherited a remote cottage. When she travels up there, anxious to find something to cover the pain of her recent loss, she finds the setting beautiful. She decides that she will spend time fixing it up, making it habitable again before deciding whether or not to sell it. It’s partially her job and also she feels it will be therapeutic for her, give her something to do and give her some space from her husband Tom, whom she can’t seem to connect with right now.
As Lila begins her task, she finds herself becoming interested about the previous inhabitants. Why did they leave? Who owned this place and why did they bequeath it to her so secretively? The lakeside cottage will unveil all sorts of mysteries, including the one behind her parents’ marriage and Lila’s very existence.
The Shadow Year has been generating a steady buzz since its publication and I was very keen to read it. It’s the sort of story that has you absolutely hooked from the very beginning – for me this was partially because there were so many mysteries to discover the answers to. Who left Lila the cottage? What was her devastating loss and how did it happen? What happened to the five college graduates and their idyllic set up? And also I was interested in this book because in my crazy mind, I often think about the attractiveness of doing exactly what Ben, Carla, Simon, Kat and Mac did – living in a little cottage, being entirely self-sufficient. But then I remind myself that a) I like my luxuries like a flushing toilet and hot water and b) I’m addicted to technology. So I live out my dreams vicariously through books, knowing I don’t have the actual willpower for reality!
In the scenes from 1980, Kat is our main character and most of her existence seems to revolve around her feelings for the charismatic Simon. She’s watched him sleep with a hoard of women through their university days but despite living with him for several years, he’s never once put the moves on her. Kat is borderline obsessed with Simon and Simon is a brilliantly rendered character. He’s utterly charming but underneath he’s sinister and manipulative as well and it seems as though Kat is unable (or unwilling) to see it. When their life in the cottage starts to unravel, both Ben and Clara question his authoritarian tactics but Kat is almost more than happy to go along with him and the fifth wheel Mac is the peacemaker. The arrival of Kat’s sister Freya seems welcome at first, particularly for Kat but as her stay stretches out, Kat begins to see her as a threat to everything she wants to have. The scenes set in this time frame with the friends in the house had me utterly engrossed!
Although the reader is able to put together parts of the story relatively easily, to be honest this doesn’t detract from the overall mystery because there are still plenty of things that need to be revealed that I didn’t really see coming! I felt for Lila, who has suffered a terrible loss, her father has recently died as well before she was able to confront him on his behaviour that hurt her and now she and her husband are drifting apart. Their background is quite well constructed and you can see firsthand how a tragedy can drive a wedge between even the most secure couples. Lila feels the need to escape to this cottage, to spend her time cleaning it up and her husband can’t really understand that. It seems he feels their separation is inevitable, especially after Lila meets local man William who assists her in small ways around the cottage.
The Shadow Year is a book that I read in one sitting, unable to put it down. It’s a fantastic mystery expertly told and the characterisation is second to none, particularly the way in which Simon and Kat are constructed. Both the story from the past and the modern day one blend together seamlessly and both are equally as interesting so I never felt like I was waiting for one part to be over so I could get back to the other story. It definitely deserves all the hype surrounding it and I’m looking forward to reading Hannah Richell’s first novel, Secrets Of The Tides.
Book #148 of 2013
Even though Hannah Richell was born in England and this novel is set there, she lives in Sydney so I’m definitely counting this towards my books read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. It’s book #63.