Black Rabbit Hall
Penguin Books AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Lorna is getting married and for some reason that she can’t explain, she’s drawn to a beautiful crumbling house in the country as the venue. She and her fiance travel to Pencraw Hall, known locally as Black Rabbit Hall. Lorna falls in love immediately, a powerful and confusing force demanding that she have their wedding there despite its lack of facilities, crumbling infrastructure and the rather eccentric inhabitants. Her fiance Jon is less enthusiastic and when both of them are invited back for a weekend to further explore the estate, he is unable to take time off from work and Lorna returns alone.
Whilst on that visit, she learns about the secrets of Black Rabbit Hall and how it went from beloved family home to a shadow and shell of its former self after the death of its mistress. Amber Alton was a child when her mother died and she and her siblings watched their father change before their very eyes, unable to cope with widowhood and the responsibility of sole parenting. Financial pressures also placed him under great strain and it wasn’t long before their father was inviting a ‘guest’ to spend holidays at Black Rabbit Hall with them. For Amber, these holidays were both despair and the fragile hope of a fledgling teenage love. They were happiness and misery as her family fractured further apart and then disintegrated entirely.
For Lorna in the present day, it’s time to bring the secrets of Black Rabbit Hall into the light. Only then can she learn her true connection to the estate and help heal the rifts that have soured its history.
A story set between two time periods is basically singing my name and so when I received this, I was pretty intrigued. Add in a crumbling country estate and a mystery and you’ve got the makings of a great story and I think that Black Rabbit Hall delivers on pretty much every level. On one hand you have the story of Amber Alton and her family, which is centered around the late 1960s. A post-war world, a time of economic instability for many and a disintegration of the lazy summer country life. Amber, her twin Toby and their younger siblings Kitty and Barney. Their father, a landed gentry sort married a glamorous American and for over a decade, the family lived an idyllic life with summers spent exploring the wild Cornish countryside until tragedy strikes. Life for Amber and her siblings changes dramatically with the events of a single storm and although they continue to summer and holiday at Black Rabbit Hall, it isn’t the same. The mood is different, the atmosphere. Amber is struggling under the weight of responsibility as increasingly it is up to her to soothe, reassure and even raise, Kitty and Barney. The arrival of a potential stepmother does nothing to improve the situation, especially as it seems their future stepmother has little time for children, not even her own son.
I absolutely loved Amber’s story. In the beginning it’s so wonderful, an intimate and loving family who divide their time between the London house and the eccentric Cornwall summer home. Amber and her siblings are tightknit, their relationship with their mother intimate and warm. It’s clear she is a wonderful if slightly unusual mother and the relationship their parents have is based on a great love. So much so that when the tragedy strikes, Amber’s father does not cope very well at all. He neglects his children and their emotional needs – not intentionally, but perhaps because he was always a supporting parent, his role defined and revolving around that of his wife’s. He also is experiencing some financial difficulty and perhaps he makes a great sacrifice in remarrying someone wealthy in an attempt to ensure their future as a family and so they can keep Black Rabbit Hall. In doing so, he slowly fractures many of the bonds within the family and doesn’t even seem to realise what is happening before his eyes – or does and is powerless or unwilling to stop it. Amber’s story is something of a tragic one in many ways, very bittersweet. She experiences a lot of loss and heartache but she also falls in love for the first time, a love that costs her dearly.
In the contemporary part of the story, Lorna is newly engaged and looking for a wedding venue. For some reason she has been drawn to Black Rabbit Hall, remembering visiting it as a small child with her mother on holiday. It’s difficult for them to find and her fiance Jon is clearly having reservations but Lorna is determined. Even though the venue is problematic (no permits, plants growing up through the ballroom floor, etc), Lorna is utterly hooked on it, so much so that it becomes quite clear that she’s connected to the place in some way beyond visiting it with her mother. To be honest, Lorna’s connection is quite easy to figure out, much before it is revealed within the narrative but it does unfold rather naturally. There were times when I found her single-mindedness a bit irritating, because she wasn’t the only person getting married, but she didn’t seem to really want to take into her fiance’s opinions and thoughts at all. He clearly had his reservations and for good reason, but they weren’t things Lorna wanted to hear. She’s pretty strong willed and luckily for her, Jon is pretty easy going and tolerant. He has reservations but he seems willing to put them aside and give her what she wants.
I enjoyed this book – the setting of Black Rabbit Hall for most of the story provides a fantastic atmosphere and the house is almost a living, breathing character itself. There was enough mystery to keep me interested, although parts of it were relatively simple to figure out, I really wanted to know what became of the Alton children after that eventful time. A fantastic debut and I look forward to more from Eve Chase.
Book #119 of 2015