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Black Rabbit Hall

Black Rabbit Hall

by Eve Chase


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“For fans of Kate Morton and Daphne du Maurier, Black Rabbit Hall is an obvious must-read.”—Bookpage
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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594792437
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Eve Chase is the author of Black Rabbit HallThe Wildling Sisters, and The Daughters of Foxcote Manor. She lives in Oxford, England with her husband and three children.

Read an Excerpt

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?

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