A secret history. A long-ago summer. A house with an untold story.
Amber Alton knows that the hours pass differently at Black Rabbit Hall, her London family’s Cornish country house, where no two clocks read the same. Summers there are perfect, timeless. Not much ever happens. Until, one terrible day, it does.
More than three decades later, Lorna is determined to be married within the grand, ivy-covered walls of Pencraw Hall, known as Black Rabbit Hall among the locals. But as she’s drawn deeper into the overgrown grounds, she soon finds herself ensnared within the house’s labyrinthine history, overcome with a need for answers about her own past and that of the once-golden family whose memory still haunts the estate.
Eve Chase's debut novel is a thrilling spiral into the hearts of two women separated by decades but inescapably linked by the dark and tangled secrets of Black Rabbit Hall.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Last day of the summer holidays, 1969, Cornwall
I feel safe on the cliff ledge, safer than in the house, anyway. Afew feet from the coast path, it's a twenty-minute scramble from the edge of the estate, far enough from Black Rabbit Hall's watching win dows, a secret place. I hover on the cliff above it for a moment or two, wind snapping my dress against my legs, soles of my feet tingling, then lower myself carefully, gripping the clumps of grass, sea roaring in my ears. (Best not to look down.) One small heart-stop drop and I'm perching right on the edge of sky. Jump too wide, it's all over. I wouldn't do it. But it occurs to me that I like the fact I could. That I have some control over my destiny today.
Pressed against the cliff wall, I finally catch my breath. So much frantic searching: woods, rooms, endless stairs. Heels rubbed raw in too-small tennis shoes. And I still haven't found them. Where are they? Shading my eyes from the sky dazzle with my hand, I scan the bottle-green cliff tops on the other side of the cove. Deserted. Only cattle in the fields. I inch down then, spine against the rock, and hitch up my dress, brazenly, so that air tunnels through my bare bent legs.
Still at last, I can't outrun the events of the day any longer. Even the sound of the waves on the rocks makes my slapped cheek sting afresh. I blink and there is the house, silhouetted on the inside of my eyelids. So I try to keep my eyes open and let my mind loose in the vast pink sky, where the sun and moon hang like a question and an answer. Iforget that Iam meant to be searching. That minutes move faster than clouds at dusk. I think only of my own escape. I don't know how long I sit there, my thoughts pierced by a huge black bird diving over the cliff, so close its talons might catch in my hair. Iinstinctively duck in its wing draft, nose meeting the cool skin of my knees. And when I look up my gaze is no longer on the sky but on flotsam bob bing on the high tide swell below.
No, not flotsam. Something more alive. A dolphin? Or those jelly fish that have been washing up in our cove all week, like a lost cargo of gray glass bowls? Maybe. I lean forward, dipping my face over the edge to get a better view, hair blowing wildly, heart beating a little faster, starting to sense something terrible shifting just below the shimmer ing blue surface, not quite seeing it. Not yet.
More than three decades later
It is one of those journeys. The closer they get to their destination, the harder it is to imagine that they'll ever actually arrive. There is always another bend in the road, a judder to the dead end of a farm track. And it is getting late, too late. Warm summer rain is drumming on the roof of the car.
"I say we cut our losses and head back to the Band B." Jon cranes over the steering wheel to get a better view of the road liquefying behind the windscreen. "Grab a pint and plan a wedding somewhere within the M25. What do you reckon?"
Lorna draws a house with her fingertip in the condensation on the window. Roof. Chimney Squiggle of smoke. "Don't think so, darling."
"Somewhere with a sunny microclimate, perhaps?"
"Ha. Funny." Despite the disappointments of the day so far-none of the wedding venues has lived up to expectation, too much over priced chintz-Lorna is quite happy. There is something exhilarating about driving through this wild weather with the man she is to marry, just the two of them cocooned in their wheezing little red Fiat. When they're old and gray they'll remember this journey, she thinks. Being young and in love and in a car in the rain.
"Great." Jon frowns at a looming dark shape in the mirror. "All I need now is a massive bloody tractor up my backside." He stops at a crossroads, where various signs, bent by the wind, point in directions that bear little relation to the angle of the corresponding roads. "Now where?"
"Are we lost?" she teases, enjoying the idea.
"The satnav is lost. We seem to have gone off grid. Only in your beloved Cornwall."
Lorna smiles. Jon's is a boyish, uncomplicated grumpiness, one that will evaporate with the first sign of the house, or a cold beer. He doesn't internalize things, like she does, or make obstacles symbolic of other stuff.
"Right." He nods at the map on Lorna's lap, which is scattered with biscuit crumbs and folded haphazardly. "How are your map-reading skills coming along, sweetheart?"
"Well ..." She scrabbles the map open, bouncing the crumbs off to join the empty water bottles rolling on the sandy car floor. "According to my rough cartological calculations, we're currently driving through the Atlantic."
Jon huffs back in his seat, stretches out his legs, too long for the small car. "Brilliant."
Lorna leans over, strokes his thigh where muscle fades the denim. She knows he's tired of driving down unfamiliar roads in the rain, touring wedding venues, this one, farthest away, hardest to find, saved for last. They would be on the Amalfi Coast if she hadn't insisted that they come to Cornwall instead. If Jon's patience is wearing thin, she can hardly blame him.
Jon proposed back at Christmas, months ago, pine needles crunch ing beneath his bended knee. For a long time, that was enough. She loved being engaged, that state of blissful suspension: they belonged to each other, but they still woke up every morning and chose to be together. She worried about jinxing that easy happiness. Anyway, there was no mad rush. They had all the time in the world.
Then they didn't. When Lorna's mother died unexpectedly in May, grief punched her back to earth and the wedding suddenly felt inescapably, brutally urgent. Her mother's death was a reminder not to wait. Not to put things on hold or forget that a black date is circled on everyone's calendar, flipping ever closer. Disorienting but also oddly life-affirming, it made her want to grab life in her fists, totter through the litter of Bethnal Green Road on a drizzly Sunday morning in her lucky red heels. This morning she wiggled herself into a sunshine yellow vintage sixties sundress. If she can't wear it now, when?
Jon changes gears, yawns. "What's the place called again, Lorna?" "Pencraw," she says brightly, trying to keep his spirits up, mindful that if it were up to Jon they'd simply stuff his large, sprawling family into a marquee in his parents' Essex garden and be done with it. Then they'd move down the road, near his adoring sisters-swapping their tiny city flat for a suburban house with a lawn sprinkler-so his mother, Lorraine, could help with all the babies that would swiftly follow. Thankfully, it is not up to Jon. "Pencraw Hall."
He runs a hand through his corn-colored hair, sun-bleached almost white at the tips. "One more shot?"
She beams back. She loves this man.
"To hell with it, let's go this way. We've got a one-in-four chance of getting it right. Hopefully we'll shake the tractor." He presses his foot hard on the gas.
They don't shake it.
The rain continues to fall. The windscreen is mashed with cow parsley petals, pushed into snowy drifts by the squeaking wipers. Lor na's heart beats a little faster beneath the crisp cotton of her dress.
Even though she can't see much beyond the rivulets of rain running down the window, she knows that the wooded valleys, river creeks, and deserted little coves of the Roseland Peninsula lie beyond the glass, and she can sense them already, hulking out there in the mist. She remembers being on these roads as a kid-they visited Corn wall most summers-and how the sea air would rush through the wound-down window, blowing away the last trapped bits of grimy Greater London, and the stitch of tension on her mother's face.
An anxious woman, her mother suffered from insomnia all her life: the seaside seemed to be the only place she could sleep. When Lorna was little, she wondered if the Cornish air swirled with strange sleepy fumes, like the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz. Now a small voice in her head cannot help wondering if it swirls with family secrets. But she decides to keep this thought to herself.
"Are you sure this old pile actually exists, Lorna?" Jon's arms are straight and stiff at the wheel, eyes reddening with strain.
"It exists." She pulls up her long, dark hair, twisting it into a top knot. A few strands escape, fringing her pale neck. She feels the heat of his glance: he loves her neck, the soft baby skin just below her ears.
"Remind me again." His eyes return to the road. "Some old manor house you visited with your m urn while on holiday down here?" "That's right." She nods enthusiastically.
"Your mum enjoyed a stately, I know that." He frowns up at the mirror. The rain is falling in undulating silver sheets now. "But how can you be sure it's this one?"
"Pencraw Hall popped up on some online wedding directory. I recognized it straightaway."
Already so many things have faded-the hyacinth notes of her mother's favorite perfume, the exact click of her tongue as she searched for her reading glasses-but in the last few weeks other memories, long forgotten, seemingly random, have come into unexpected bright focus. And this is one of them. "Mum pointing up at this big old house. The look of awe in her eyes. It sort of stuck with me." She swivels the diamond engagement ring on her finger, remembering other things too. A pink-striped paper bag of fudge heavy in her hand. A river. "Yes, I'm almost certain it's the same house."
"Almost?" Jon shakes his head, laughs, one ofhis big belly laughs that rumble against his ribs. "God, I must love you."
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Lorna and Amber are two very different women at very different places in their lives, but both are forever changed by events that occur at Black Rabbit Hall. In what ways are these women similar? How are they different? Did you relate to one character more than the other?
2. As children, Amber and Toby are almost inseparable, but after their mother’s death they both change dramatically—Amber reflects that she “no longer feel[s] like a girl inside” (p. 93), and Toby becomes increasingly angry and wild. Why do you think the twins grow apart, instead of together? Do you think they would have stayed close if Momma had lived? Why or why not?
3. During her first visit to Black Rabbit Hall, Lorna discovers a horse’s skull displayed in the library. Why do you think Mr. and then Mrs. Alton kept this, and why is it displayed so visibly? Do you agree with their choice? Jon comments, “This lot would stuff their own ancestors, given half a chance.” What do you think he means?
4. Which Alton sibling is your favorite? Why? Which sibling do you most identify with? Are they the same character?
5. When the novel begins, Amber is fourteen. After the Alton family tragedy, however, she is forced to grow up quickly and take responsibility for her siblings. How do you think this responsibility affects her relationship with Lucian? How did you respond to their relationship? Did you have a “first love,” and if so, did you relate to Amber’s feelings? Why or why not?
6. Lorna is enchanted by Black Rabbit Hall, knowing from the beginning this is where she’d like to be married. But as she explores, she feels more and more drawn to the family that lived there. Why did you first think she felt so tied to the Alton children? Is there somewhere from your family’s past that you won’t ever forget? Have you explored your own family history, and if so, did you find anything surprising?
7. Discuss the character of Caroline Alton. She admits to Lorna that she found her stepchildren “unfathomable” (p. 168). Do you think she is a bad stepmother? Are her actions ever justified?
8. As Lorna finds herself pulled further into the hallways and history of Black Rabbit Hall, she feels increasingly distant from Jon. Did you feel frustrated with Lorna’s treatment of the wedding? Did you feel frustrated with Jon? At one point Lorna thinks of an ex who claimed that Lorna “tests” relationships to see if they’re worth saving. Do you think this is true?
9. Nancy Alton remains a beacon of beauty and grace throughout the novel. Why do you think Eve Chase wrote her as an American? In what ways is she different from Caroline? Are the two women ever alike, and should they be?
10. Lorna finds much more than a wedding venue when she finally understands what happened at Black Rabbit Hall. Were you surprised by the ending? How do you feel about the Alton children, decades later?