I find it much easier to pinpoint exactly why I didn’t enjoy a book than to explain what compelled me to stay up until daft o’ clock to finish it. Loving a book seems a lot more abstract and tricky to describe than disliking one. Yet I must have a go because Black Rabbit Hall is my favourite read of the year so far.
I am very dubious of those ‘Perfect for fans of …’declarations on book covers. Usually the very opposite is true: die hard fans like to stick to the original and accept no imitations, thank you very much.
This case proved to be an exception for me, though. I have previously declared my love for Kate Morton’s novels and when I saw Black Rabbit Hall described as ‘perfect for fans of Kate Morton’, there was a bit of an involuntary lip curl. But there was also a flicker of hope: ‘what if?’ And, for once, hope did not turn to disappointment. This novel and I were perfect for each other. Hurrah.
But why? Well, firstly, I do like my old dual time frames and, here, Eve Chase offers two gripping and intertwining narratives. The third-person modern day narrative centres around Lorna, who is searching for the perfect wedding venue whilst grieving the recent loss of her mother. Vague recollections of childhood visits with her mother draw Lorna to Pencraw Hall in Cornwall, known locally as Black Rabbit Hall. Things get ‘gothicky’ straight away when a local farmer tries to warn Lorna and her fiance Jon away from the house with some friendly advice and a thick slice of foreboding. Lorna ploughs on regardless, though, and encounters an even gothickier set-up on arrival at the Hall. She meets Mrs Alton, the frosty and forbidding owner and her kept-down assistant, Dill. Mrs Alton is desperate to save the house from financial ruin by offering it as a wedding venue, despite its dilapidated state. Keen to secure her first customer, Mrs Alton invites Lorna to stay and, against the wishes of her increasingly uneasy fiance, she agrees. Lorna’s growing obsession with the house drives a wedge between her and Jon to the point where there might never be a wedding at all. What isn’t she telling him? Why is she so drawn to Black Rabbit Hall?
In our breaks between visits to modern day Black Rabbit Hall, we are whisked back to the late 1960s where we are in the rather delightful company of Amber Alton, our fifteen year-old narrator. Amber is growing up and growing apart from her twin brother, Toby. The twins – along with their younger siblings Kitty and Barney, their beautiful American mother, Nancy and their father Hugh – spend their holidays at Black Rabbit Hall, their family’s ‘safe, happy place’.
But the Hall doesn’t seem so safe after a tragedy rocks the Altons and, soon afterwards, Caroline Shawcross and her son Lucien arrive to further compromise the family’s insular existence. Amber’s coming of age is infused with tension and danger as Toby becomes increasingly wild and rage-driven, convinced that another disaster will befall the family on the last day of the summer holidays.
Like all things worth loving, Black Rabbit Hall isn’t perfect. It is highly predictable in places and the gothic chimes of doom are overdone at times. There are some rather far-fetched elements. Mrs Alton and Dill, for instance, are the sort of people who only seem to exist in gothic-tinged novels. Where else do you hear walking canes ominously tapping down corridors in the dead of night? Or maybe that’s just me. Perhaps if I had stayed overnight in a creaky country mansion, I would have a different take on things.
These little wrinkles are all forgivable, though. The majority of the characters seem incredibly real, especially the Alton children. I cared very deeply about their fates and kept hoping that the terrible sense of foreboding that permeates this strand of the narrative would prove to be a false alarm.
The whole novel is highly atmospheric and completely gripping. Black Rabbit Hall itself is almost a character in the book and is very vividly described. The ending is satisfying and the epilogue hauntingly beautiful.
Indeed, whilst some of the writing is predictable and a tad OTT, there are some deeply insightful passages too, and these mark Eve Chase as a real talent: a gifted writer as well as a consummate storyteller. The loss of mothers is a key theme in the novel. This is something else that drew me to the book. I lost my own mother in May and so this novel was particularly timely for me. There is nothing more reassuring than coping with such a loss, feeling that you’re going a bit mad and then reading something that indicates you are not alone and hints that you are probably perfectly normal after all. Such is the power of books. This was exactly my experience here. The descriptions of Lorna’s grief were incredibly well-observed and highly relatable, lifting the novel from a ripping yarn into something more evocative and powerful.
For me, this book has it all: a gripping plot, a dramatic location, characters who live and breathe on the page, and beautiful, haunting prose. I wish all novels were like this but, then, I wouldn’t get much else done!