Aussie Book Review: The Shadow Year by Hannah Richell

The Shadow Year
My Rating:              5 / 5
Format:                  Paperback courtesy of Hachette Australia
                              and The Reading Room
Publication Date:    May 2013
Category:               Modern & Contemporary Fiction
ISBN:                      9780733630507
Extent:                    416 pages
RRP:                      AU$29.99

The Blurb

"No one knew that one lost year would cast such a long shadow ...

On a sultry summer’s day in 1980, five friends stumble upon an abandoned lakeside cottage hidden deep in the English countryside.  For Kat and her housemates, it offers an escape, a chance to drop out for a while.  But as the seasons change, tensions begin to rise and when an unexpected visitor appears at their door, nothing will be the same again …

Three decades later, Lila arrives at the same remote cottage.  With her marriage in crisis, she finds solace in renovating the tumbledown house.  Little by little she wonders about the previous inhabitants.  How did they manage in such isolation? And why did they leave in such a hurry, with their belongings still strewn about? Most disturbing of all, why can’t she shake the feeling that someone might be watching her?

The Shadow Year is a mesmerising story of tragedy, lies and betrayal."

Summary and Thoughts

After reading Hannah Richell's debut novel, Secrets of the Tides in January this year (review here), for which she received many accolades and, after eagerly anticipated the release of The Shadow Year, and then being offered a review copy which I absolutely devoured, I can only say that I was right in my assumption!

July 1980 and a swelteringly hot English summer’s day sees five friends on the verge of graduating from Uni trying hard not to think about heading home, registering at the local job centre and all the responsibilities contained in the “real world”.  Having lived together in a student house for two years, they seem to have formed a little family unit and can’t envision being separated, especially not Kat.

Simon comes from a wealthy background and is the “wise one”.  He exudes confidence and commands attention by his very presence; Kat is the victim of unrequited love.  A prospective journalist and the result of a broken family, she is a girl who has always held people at arm’s length and been a bit of an outsider; Ben, with his easy humour, is an engineering graduate from a wealthy family and has been friends with Simon since school; Carla, warm and generous by nature is hoping to go into social work and is Ben’s long-term girlfriend; and Mac, a loner, shy and quiet.

Together they are a kaleidoscopic group full of dreams and, with the newspapers of 1980’s England extolling doom and gloom from its pages by hinting at a recession and unemployment rates on the rise, when they stumble upon a dilapidated old cottage, the possibilities are endless – a simple life with no responsibilities besides the basic necessities for survival.

Their gap year becomes a reality and all is well in their idyllic existence until the beautiful languid days of summer begin to recede into the ever-lengthening shadows of autumn, and a cold, hard winter.  The arrival of a surprise visitor threatens their idealistic visions and, along with their unspoken but manipulative leader and dwindling food supplies, ever-shifting loyalties become the order of the day.

Shortly after her father's death and in July, present day, we meet Lila and are immediately thrown into the psyche of this young woman struggling to come to terms with the loss of her first child and the consequent depression which is causing extreme pressure on her perfect marriage to Tom.  Lila, an interior designer has always felt that her and Tom, a design engineer, are meant for one another, but as she tries to decipher the flashbacks from the tragedy which engulfs them with grief, the guilt and blame along with her fear and anxiety, threatens to forever crumble a perfect marriage which has always been filled with spontaneity and passion.

When Lila receives a letter with a key informing her that she has inherited a cottage in the Peak District, from an unknown benefactor, she is intrigued by the bequest.  She decides that she’d like to take a look at the mysterious cottage but when she arrives at the dilapidated structure with its tranquil lake, she is stunned to find that remnants of its previous occupants remain, as if they have fled in haste, and she feels a deep connection which pulls her in.  In her current frame of mind she feels that the cottage could be a refuge and renovating it, the means by which she will be able to exorcise the memories of the tragedy which plague her and give her time to reassess her life and marriage to Tom.  Not to be deterred by the awful dreams which consume her sleep and the sense that she is constantly being watched, along with Tom’s misgivings about her living at the remote cottage on her own, Lila insists on continuing with her project.  With some assistance from a local farmer whom she befriends, as Lila begins to peel back the layers of paint and sift through the contents, the cottage begins to reveal clues to its closely held secrets.  History is unraveled and, while it becomes clear that past and present characters’ lives are inexorably linked, it is left to the reader to determine how.

The abandoned cottage and lake form the backbone of the narrative and they too become living, breathing characters in themselves, keeping the eerie undercurrent alive as the landscape and seasons parallel that of the characters’ moods and behaviors and, the power of that age-old saying, “still waters run deep”, is not to be underestimated!

Told from the perspectives of Kat and Lila, the scene is set in the prologue, by casting an atmosphere of deep and dark unease over the reader, threatening to suck you into its depths, and not letting up until the dramatic epilogue reveals the final twisted secret.  With so much contained within these two different but tragic stories that eventually converge, we are given a glimpse into the dynamics of dysfunctional families and toxic friendships, the consequences of recreational drug use, obsession, jealousy, betrayal, truth, honesty and the pain surrounding the loss of a baby.

The characters are complex individuals and I became emotionally invested in their lives, in particular with Kat and Lila – Kat for her ability to make me feel sympathy in one moment and contempt the next and, as a mother, with Lila, who had me feeling her pain and isolation as I identified with the subtle errors in judgment that so often become a part of the life of someone in the throes of depression.

The clever structure of this novel results in a powerfully told, richly evocative and compelling tale in which Ms Richell once again explores the complexity of human relationships and lays them bare for all to see.

I wish to thank the publisher, Hachette Australia and The Reading Room for providing me with a paperback copy of this deeply dark tale in which the flawed characters are as dominant as the nature that surrounds them.

A Little About the Author (adapted from her website)

Hannah Richell loves books and film and has been lucky enough to market both in her career.  

British-Australian, she currently lives in Sydney with her husband, two young children and a black-and-white cat called Lennie.

Secrets of the Tidesher debut novel, was published in 2012 and was translated into fourteen languages along with being selected for the autumn Richard & Judy Book Club.

The Shadow Year is her second novel.


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