In her gothic melodrama, Chase crafts the world of mysterious Pencraw Hall, a dark and foreboding place which the locals have aptly named Black Rabbit Hall. The
house is like a ramshackle Downton Abbey, with a meddling widow at its head and at least one knowing servant who oversees the housekeeping like a patron saint. Instead of the acerbic Dowager Duchess, there’s Caroline Alton, a steely recluse with liver-spotted hands and a face etched with “knife-cut wrinkles.” Caroline is determined to find a way to secure the Hall’s future: “this place eats money, even if you only live in a bit of it.” Looking after Mrs. Alton and helping to manage the vast house is Endellion (Dill), a tiny woman with startled gray eyes who is very shy and “in need of a bit of a groom.”
After seeing the Hall in an online wedding directory, Lorna
and Jon, her sandy-haired fiancé, have come to Cornwall hoping that the large estate will be the perfect setting for their impending nuptials. Lorna is immediately entranced, seduced by the bucolic surroundings--particularly the deserted coves of the Roseland Peninsula and the vast grounds that lie at the front of the old manor house. Lorna can remember the surroundings as a
child when she and her mother visited Cornwall most summers; she still has a series of old photographs of her and her mother on Pencraw’s drive. Yet it is Pencraw’s isolated, lonely character that increases her worries about jinxing her easy happiness. After Lorna’s mother
unexpected death in May, the wedding feels inescapably urgent. Pencraw Hall only adds to Lorna’s anxious mood, “giddily elated one day, flat and morbid the next.”
As Lorna feels her way through this strange new world without her mother to a vast house populated by just one old lady and her housekeeper, memories of missed opportunities fly past: her kindly father, Doug, whom Lorna feels comfortably connected to but
who still refuses to tell her about her mother’s dark secret, and Jon, who grows frustrated with his spouse’s new obsession with Pencraw. Jon wants a successful wedding, but he’s wary of Mrs. Alton, so dependent on the trickle of money from the outside world. Jon is also suspicious of the years of neglect--the splintered upper windows, the chipped battlements--which have left the house almost “embedded in its grounds.” For Lorna, the Hall’s dilapidated state makes it even more seductive, while Jon is of the opinion that clearly any wedding here would feel ancient and perhaps not quite right.
Alternating between third and first-person points of view, Chase’s vibrant chapters swing back and forth between Lorna’s gradual obsession
with aging and emotionally damaged Caroline Alton, and 1968, where a girl called
Amber lives in Fitzroy Square with her American mother, Nancy, and her three siblings, Toby, Barney and Kitty. Amber and Nancy both dream of being back at Black Rabbit Hall, where Nancy can ride her horses in peace and where life is “full of sandcastles.” A carefree American who rapidly becomes the glue that holds the Alton family together, Nancy rides bareback and sometimes even wears denim jeans. Nancy constantly has to remind her husband to never forget how privileged they are still to have Black Rabbit Hall.
Chase frames her novel around a terrible tragedy. As Amber runs, praying over and over that Black Rabbit Hall is a safe, happy place, Barney suddenly goes missing. There’s a storm, a full moon and a high tide, a dark red spatter and a smell of horse sweat and blood. Nancy is sucked into a hole that has opened up “black deep and dangerous.” Her sudden death nearly
cripples the family. In the face of this challenge, Amber clings to Toby as their father loses his ability to translate his love for them: “the best thing for all of us is to continue precisely as if nothing had happened.” When Toby leaves for boarding school, Kitty, Barney, and Amber are returned to Fitzroy Square, where Amber hopes they can all recapture the days before the storm and her mother will still be there. Amber’s adolescent awakening is drastically affected by Toby’s anger and by
Caroline's son Lucian, who enters their lives that summer. Snake-hipped, floppy-haired, and every inch the bright young scholar, Lucian
(together with his mother) seems intent at first to wipe out all traces of the Alton family.
Back in the present, Lorna senses a strange connection with the Altons; she needs to satisfy herself and to make some sense of it. Caroline tells Lorna she became the “monster everyone said she was.” Something “dark and chaotic” is tugging at the corners of Lorna’s conversation with Caroline: “It was a silly, desperate lie. But it grew--it grew so big.” Lorna’s mother’s old photographs begin to stir up the same dark space in her head, chasing one another “like playful ghosts.” She begins to feel alive and fully charged for the first time in months.
She wants to find out more about the photos and about what happened to the Alton children at the end of the summer of
'69, especially to a little boy called Barney.
Insightful and poignant, a summer like no other becomes a catalyst for drastic change, a sexual awakening, the blossom of true love, and a dark family secret. As the disparate parts come together--Lorna’s Cornish holidays, her mother’s absurd insistence on knowing her cultural heritage, and all of the Pencraw gossip--Chase posits a girl whose past is littered with lies and omissions. Particularly touching is Amber’s transformation.
Her bourgeoning sexuality is real, as is her love for Lucian, a love that will transcend time and Caroline’s selfish machinations. Adding tenderness is Lorna and Jon’s gorgeous wedding,
at which the Alton family finally comes full circle. Beautiful, tender, and emotional, this book is hopefully a harbinger of things to come. I will be looking forward to reading a lot more from this entertaining author.