The Peacock Summer…
About the Book:
Two summers, decades apart. Two women whose lives are forever entwined. And a house that holds the secrets that could free them both.
At twenty-six, Lillian feels ancient and exhausted. Her marriage to Charles Oberon has not turned out the way she thought it would. To her it seems she is just another beautiful object captured within the walls of Cloudesley, her husband’s Chilterns manor house. But, with a young stepson and a sister to care for, Lillian accepts there is no way out for her. Then Charles makes an arrangement with an enigmatic artist visiting their home and her world is turned on its head.
Maggie Oberon ran from the hurt and resentment she caused. Half a world away, in Australia, it was easier to forget, to pretend she didn’t care. But when her grandmother, Lillian, falls ill Maggie must head back to Cloudesley. Forced to face her past, she will learn that all she thought was real, all that she held so close, was never as it seemed.
The Peacock Summer is a brilliantly atmospheric story of illusion and heartbreak, orbiting around an illustrious English estate filled with priceless treasures and the darkest of secrets. While I was tempted to simply devour this novel, I slowed down and lingered over it, because it’s that sort of story, where you want to just immerse yourself for as long as possible, so elegant was the writing and so consuming was the story. The house itself, Cloudesley, had a presence all of its own, Hannah Richell’s beautifully descriptive prose breathing life into this inanimate fixture:
“She runs a hand over the huge, faded tapestry hanging across the wall – then turns to climb the curved staircase to her own room. Halfway up she stops and listens. There is no scrabble of dog paws on the tiled floor, no shuffle of newspaper pages from the library, no distant murmur from her grandmother’s radio. There is nothing; not even the glug of water moving through old pipes. This house, that has witnessed so much throughout the years – dinner parties and laughter, conversation and arguments, dancing and music – a house that has seen so much life, had so many people pass through its doors, stands utterly silent. It is unnerving to be its only occupant. What echoes would she hear – what stirrings from the past – if she only knew what to listen for?”
Stories revolving around houses and the mysteries from the past contained within their walls have always been a favourite of mine and Cloudesly guarded its secrets well.
For the most part, this story broke my heart. Lillian was such a beautiful young woman but life had dealt her a very unfortunate hand. Had she been more of a selfish woman, she would have undoubtedly suffered less, yet it was her capacity for love and her unselfish nature that made her who she was. The Peacock Summer is a dark story, far darker than I anticipated, and it’s all the more absorbing because of it.
“…her marriage to Charles is a complicated, volatile landscape. There are so many unspoken rules; so many uncertain dictates; so many fluctuating emotions to anticipate and interpret. She knows he has seen too much – lost too much. She does not, for one moment, underestimate the damage he has endured in those unspoken years away at war, followed so closely by the tragic loss of his first wife. She only wishes she were more adept at navigating her life with him, better able to understand the man she now finds herself bound to. For each day she wakes and steps out into the marriage, she feels as though she balances precariously, never quite sure if the ground she steps on is firm or quicksand, sucking her down into one of Charles’s more erratic moods.”
My first impression of Charles Oberon was that he was a prized arse. He really was a piece of work, taking great pleasure in publicly humiliating his wife, never failing to remind her that she was at his mercy, the beneficiary of his generosity, nothing without him – the usual misogynistic posturing that can be associated with men who make a hobby out of devaluing women. This behaviour of his extended to his young son, so I quickly formed a picture of Charles Oberon that was not in his favour. Yet as the story progressed, and more of him was revealed, I was horrified by his true nature. He may have suffered trauma in the war, and lost his first wife shortly after, but he was a monster to his family. Coupled with wealth and power, Lillian didn’t stand a chance against him, she was utterly trapped, a fact that she was very much aware of. Charles himself was a complex character; it’s not an easy thing to bring a person with such duality to life on the page. Charismatic and powerful, yet horrendously violent towards his family. Each scene containing Charles was finely drawn out, the tension for the reader mirroring the tension for his family. Hannah Richell kept his volatility entirely unpredictable, heightening the suspense throughout. Through Lillian’s relationship with Albie, Hannah Richell skilfully demonstrated the chains that can bind a woman to an untenable situation. Little Albie broke my heart and I forgave adult Albie much on account of the brutality he not only experienced, but also witnessed, while growing up. There was so much sadness within this family, so much loss, so much anger and devastation, so many wasted years of life; all owing to the tyranny of one man.
Maggie, Lillian’s granddaughter, was a bit hit and miss for me. I admired her devotion to Lillian, but I always struggle with sketchy characters who can’t seem to work out what they want so instead of trying to figure it out, they run away and sleep with random strangers. Repeatedly. In Albie, I could see the reason for this, but in Maggie, it appeared self indulgent. There was too much self-flagellation and self-pity initially, but she grew on me a little more by the end. I appreciated how Hannah Richell set the story up for her to uncover the past herself, rather than simply being told by Lillian via a reflective story or by reading diary entries – a little too common in dual timeline historical fiction nowadays for my liking. The way the past unfolded in The Peacock Summer was refreshingly unique. Lillian told Maggie very little about the past, a couple of slips here and there in a moment, but nothing solid. Maggie had to dig for her info, put the pieces together herself. It made her more of an active participant in the story and gave the reader plenty of opportunities to see Maggie’s qualities instead of simply focussing on her past mistakes. While uncovering the secrets of her family and in working towards a solution for saving Cloudesly, Maggie was able to at last find herself, or at least, she began to tread in the right direction for herself rather than directly into the arms of a saviour. She began, by the end of the story, to show signs of being the strong woman Lillian had hoped she could be. I very much enjoyed the positive open ending, it was fitting after such a grave and significant story.
“And for the briefest time, Maggie sees her life clearly: all the moments, large and small that have been, and all the ones yet to come, connected by some long, silvery thread, strong yet invisible, like a spider’s web. She feels this singular moment joining to all the rest and finds the thought strangely comforting.”
This is one novel where the past and the present were balanced and interwoven with perfection. There were many moments of poignant symmetry between Lillian and Maggie, giving a cohesion to the novel that ensured it was all one story, as opposed to a loosely linked ‘past and present’ tale. The Peacock Summer is a triumph, compelling historical fiction of the highest calibre. The significance of the title and the corresponding design of the double-sided cover is something all readers will appreciate once they’ve reached the end of this hauntingly beautiful novel.
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of The Peacock Summer for review.
About the Author:
Hannah Richell was born in Kent and spent her childhood years in the UK and Canada. She is the author of two previous best-selling novels: Secrets of the Tides and The Shadow Year. Her books have been translated into fourteen languages. Hannah has a background in book and film marketing and has worked in both the UK and Australia on a range of popular entertainment brands. She has also written for media outlets such as Harpers Bazaar, Australian Women’s Weekly, Fairfax and the Independent. Hannah is a dual citizen of Great Britain and Australia and currently lives in the South West of England with her family.
The Peacock Summer
Published 26 June 2018
Available in Paperback, eBook and Audiobook