I really enjoyed Hannah Richell’s debut novel, Secrets of the Tides, and jumped at the chance of receiving a review copy of The Shadow Year. This is blurbed as ‘another mesmerising story of tragedy, lies and betrayal.’
In the novel, protagonist Lila Bailey receives a package ‘out of the blue’, which consists of a letter and a key. She has no idea who could have done such a thing, but someone has anonymously bequeathed her a ‘remote lakeside cottage and the timing couldn’t be better; with her marriage unravelling, the house offers the perfect escape.’ Upon reaching the cottage, which lies in Derbyshire’s Peak District, Lila soon begins to wonder as to why the previous inhabitants clearly left in such a hurry, leaving their belongings behind. She also, later on, starts to feel as though she is being watched at every turn. ‘As a year at the lake unfolds, Lila uncovers long forgotten secrets and discovers that the past can cast a very long shadow.’
The prologue is rather sensuously written. Here, Richell has focused upon an unnamed female character, and speaks of the lake itself almost as a character in its own right: ‘Pushing off from the bottom, she swims out to where the water is dark and deep then stops to watch the breeze play across the surface, lifting it in choppy peaks. Her blood is cooling and she feels the weight of herself – her arms, her legs, the heavy tangle of her nightie, her slow-beating heart. Treading water, she sees the cottage tilt in the distance and the light waver across the treetops. It’s a dream, she tells herself and lays her head back upon the water, suspended there between earth and sky, floating for a moment upon the skin of the lake.’
Lila likes the idea of going to explore the land with Tom, her husband, a trip which is focused upon in the first chapter. The pair are dealing with a bereavement, following a miscarriage. Of the trip, which Lila suggests after a series of arguments, Richell writes: ‘She can see that he is surprised by her sudden desire to do something and knows it must seem strange when she has spent the last couple of weeks holed-up at home, doing very little of anything besides sleeping and crying and wandering aimlessly around the house. But somewhere new and remote… somewhere no one knows them… somewhere where no one knows what’s happened is strangely appealing.’
The second chapter of The Shadow Year begins in 1980, when five friends, all of whom have just finished their undergraduate degrees, stumble upon the same cottage that will be left to Lila decades later. They are all unsure about what to do in the ‘real world’, and the cottage becomes a place of escape for them. Upon the suggestion of Ben’s, they decide on a whim to spend an entire year there as an ‘experiment’, cut off from the rest of the world, and able to enjoy their own pursuits. All is not as idyllic as it first seems, however; tensions begin to mount between various members of the group, and ‘when an unexpected visitor appears at their door, nothing will be the same again.’
Richell’s descriptions of the dilapidated cottage are quite lovely. She writes: ‘The gritstone walls are spotted with lichen and the rose appears to be missing several tiles. Closer still and she can see guttering hanging off at an alarming angle and birds’ nests and cobwebs lodged under the eaves. In front of both ground floor windows, nestled amidst the dandelions and nettles are wild bursts of lime green seed heads, round and flat and translucent like paper… As they move closer still they see that the windows are black with grime…’.
Everything in The Shadow Year started off so well, but there was very little momentum with which to carry the story along. Rather, whole sections felt slow and almost stagnant. I did not feel invested in a single character here. I remember much of the cast of Secrets of the Tides as realistic constructions, with depth to them, and believable backstories. The characters here, however, felt rather cliched. The main twist of the novel was predictable, and I saw it coming very quickly indeed.
A lot of other reviewers seem to have really enjoyed The Shadow Year, but I cannot help but feel disappointed. I have read books with similar plotlines, by the likes of Juliet Greenwood and Kate Morton, which I found to be far more immersive, and better pieced together.