Hannah Richell's long-awaited new novel opens on a Sydney beach where a young woman wakes at dawn with sand on her cheek after a sexual encounter with a stranger. The man has left and as Maggie stumbles to her feet, feeling the first stirrings of a hangover, her phone rings. Soon she is on a flight to England, summoned to her grandmother's bedside and to the house, Cloudsley, where she grew up.
It is a big old house, faded now and full of secrets, chief among them a forbidden room, its locked door concealed behind a heavy curtain. Richell had read a story about a wealthy American living in London in the 1800s who hired James Abbott McNeill Whistler to paint scenes on the walls and ceiling of his dining room. The artist spent months on the project but then the two men fell out. "The rumour was that Whistler had been having an affair with his patron's wife," says Richell, "I thought, here is the brilliant nub of a novel."
In each of Richell's books a house is a central character, acting as the locus of family history, the narrative shifting back and forth between the generations who have lived there. The first was based on her grandparents' house in Dorset, the new one, her third, is set in an English village closely resembling the one she grew up in: "Nostalgia and memory inform the story," she says, "the space as a child is so magical, if you can tap into that it is really powerful."
So it is perhaps surprising to find Richell, relocated from Australia to England, living in a brand new house, part of the first phase of a development on the edge of an ancient riverside town in Wiltshire. Did she look at old houses first? "No," she says, "uncharacteristically for me I looked at this one, made a decision and bought it." She describes it as a blank canvas: "It's exciting to have a space in which to create something. So much of our life from Australia is here, I've been able to think about where to place it and how to honour it."
It is almost exactly four years since Hannah's husband, Matthew Richell, died after a surfing accident off Tamarama Beach in Sydney's east. He was the popular, inspirational chief executive of publishing house Hachette, she a kitchen table writer with two successful novels behind her and a third under way. Their children Jude and Gracie were six and three.
They had agreed he would never surf alone: "Stupidly I worried about sharks," says Hannah, "but I never thought this would happen; you never expect to walk into your house on a beautiful Sydney day and find two plain-clothes policemen waiting to give you the worst news. It is like a knife falling, separating you from your old life."
The couple first met in London at publishers Pan Macmillan where Hannah worked in marketing. "Matt waltzed into Pan and into the position I had put myself forward for," she says. "I decided not to like him but he was so good at his job and so charming, you couldn't not love him." In their first conversation they bonded over a love for Australia where each had spent a year out. "It became a shared dream to live there," she says.
They moved to Sydney in 2005, married in 2007 and settled in a Balmain cottage where Hannah, pregnant with Jude, embarked on her first novel. "I'd always wanted to write," she says, "but I didn't have the confidence. Probably because I'd been surrounded by brilliant writers in my job and thought, how could I ever be that good?"
She was. Secrets of the Tides sold around the world and within a year she had delivered a second, The Shadow Year. She was well into her third when Matt died: unsurprisingly the novel stalled. But writers usually can't help writing – "I filled journals," Richell tells me – and within a month she had published a blog.
"There is so much I would like to tell Matt about this strange life we are living," she wrote, "I long to pick up the phone and chat to him. I would tell him about Gracie's new sleep spot on her bedroom floor, and the game she now plays, dressing up in his belongings – sunglasses, shoes, a hat – before crowing with delight: 'Look! Daddy's home. Look Judey, Daddy's home.' I would tell him about his daughter's new talent for anger and how his son wears his grief differently: in his downturned mouth, his pale face and the purple shadows under his eyes, so stoic until just before the lights go out and the questions come in a rush. 'Mum, where do you go when you die? Mum, what does it feel like to be dead? Mum, does anyone still love me? Mum, why can't we all be immortal jellyfish?' And hardest of all, 'Mum, is Daddy ever coming home?'"
She was, she wrote, "the incredible skin woman – empty, hollow, nothing real or warm left inside … I am master of the silent scream."
Did she cry with the children? "Oh yes, from very early on. I was given some good advice, that it was best for them to see my grief but not in a scary way. I only lost it completely once. I was lying on the floor and these two little people came and hugged me. We lay there together."
Finding my creativity again has given me some release.
Did she think she would never be happy again? "Definitely. For a long time … What I've learnt is that joy when you find it is often in the simplest things. Notice them, know they will pass, so be in the moment. I remember feeling gratitude for my life with Matt but it's taken losing him to make me appreciate the 'now': don't wait for something on the horizon."
Two years after his death she moved back to England. "For a very long time I couldn't think of anything except panic and pain," she says. "I also had in the back of my mind early advice from a child psychologist: to keep everything as stable and constant as possible for the kids."
But, she says, she faced the absence of Matt every day and everywhere, in every room in the house and in every street. "I had friends in Sydney, of course, but we're all at a stage when our lives are so busy. I felt very alone." Her father and sister live in Melbourne, her mother in England: "I knew I needed family support so it had to be one or the other." What swung it? "The desire to come back to the softness of a place that felt like home."
And yet, she says, "there is a part of me that will always call Australia home." Like the Qantas ads? She looks surprised, then grins: "Oh yes! It has seeped into me – I can weep at Australian tourism ads."
Oh dear, I say, the old England/Australia divide: there's no escape, like opening Pandora's box. "It is, it is," she says, "that's exactly how I think of it. There is that Sliding Doors moment: what would have happened it we'd done X instead of Y?" She sighs: "You just have to learn to be where you are. I feel very fortunate to feel at home in two beautiful countries when there are people all over the world fighting to find any place to call home."
Settled in England near to her mother, Richell finally returned to the book she had shelved for two years. "[Author] Penny Vincenzi wrote me a very lovely letter after Matt's death saying, 'You will write again; it becomes therapy to get back to it.' She was right, it just made me cross that it took so long. I was lost in so many different ways: when I moved here I thought, 'I must do it. I've got to finish it. I can't finish it!' Then, suddenly, it was like pressing the reset button." She now writes during school hours. "Finding my creativity again has given me some release," she says.
Published this month, The Peacock Summer is an elegantly plotted page-turner, spanning three generations of a family with all its secrets and lies, misunderstanding and reconciliation. There has been chat in the British book pages recently suggesting that the shortlist for this year's Women's Prize for Fiction leaned towards so-called literary novels, ignoring obvious commercial bestsellers.
"I think commercial is a wonderful word," she says, "it means you're making money! And if you're reaching lots of readers who enjoy your stories, that's great. I don't have any snobbery about it."
We are sitting at her kitchen table with sunshine streaming in onto pale floors. It is one of those mythic May months of tender greenery unfurling, soft blue skies and hawthorn laden with white blossom. "This is my favourite time in England," says Richell, "and particularly so this year after such a long, deep winter."
It has taken a long time to feel a sense of home, she says. "We're still searching, but I try to be as present as possible and make Matt present too. We have a memory jar: we write things about him and put them in. Just the other day Gracie asked to go through the jar. It's not all the rosy stuff, we wrote how he used to get 'hangry' when he was hungry. We're all afraid of forgetting."
There are moments during our conversation that her large blue eyes swim, though tears never spill over. When I get home I find a poem by Auden and send her the opening lines: May with its light behaving / Stirs vessel, eye and limb, / The singular and sad / Are willing to recover.
She writes back that they are beautiful and speak to her. She adds that she is keen not to come across as, "Poor me".
She doesn't, I reply. Not at all.
The Peacock Summer is published by Hachette on June 26 at $29.99
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