The Shadow Year


By Hannah Richell

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 6, 2014. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

From the internationally bestselling author of The House of Tides, a psychologically gripping novel about a group of college graduates who decide to live off the grid–and the consequences for their lives.

Still grieving the death of her prematurely delivered infant, Lila finds a welcome distraction in renovating a country house she’s recently inherited. Surrounded by blueprints and plaster dust, though, she finds herself drawn into the story of a group of idealistic university grads from thirty years before, who’d thrown off the shackles of bourgeois city life to claim the cottage and rely only on each other on the land. But utopia-building can be fraught with unexpected peril, and when the fate of the group is left eerily unclear, Lila turns her attention to untangling a web of secrets to uncover the shocking truth of what happened that fateful year, in order to come to terms with her own loss and build a new future for herself.

Suspenseful and moving, with a deep secret at its heart, The Shadow Year is Hannah Richell’s breakout book.


A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

—Henry David Thoreau,
, 1854


It is the smallest details that come to her: the damp grass underfoot threaded with buttercups, the air humming with insects, the snap of her nightdress catching in the breeze. As she wanders out of the cottage and down toward the mirrored surface of the lake, her senses are heightened. She hears the splash of a duck hiding in the reeds and the slow drum of her heart in her chest. Just a few moments to herself, she thinks—to wash—to swim—to clear her mind and ready herself for what lies ahead. Soon she will be gone from this place.

Halfway down the ridge she stumbles on the uneven ground, then rights herself, carrying on until the lake lies before her, a blue eye gazing up at the sky. Shadows of slow-drifting clouds shift upon its surface, and the image shimmers like a mirage. She blinks and the haze lifts.

She wades out, thick mud and silt squeezing between her toes and a dark water stain creeping up the hem of her nightdress. Water ripples and disperses all around her, and it’s as though she’s looking at the lake through the grease-smeared lens of a camera—as if she wades not through water, but through a dream. The pebbles feel real enough beneath her feet, though, as does the cool water rising up toward her chest. She shakes herself. Is this a dream?

Pushing off from the bottom, she swims out to where the water is dark and deep and 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 just a moment upon the skin of the lake.




Lila sits at one end of a deserted picnic bench with a cup of coffee before her. Although it hasn’t been this warm for a while, the park is half-empty; it is that strange, quiet hour when workers have retreated back to their offices after lunch but the schools haven’t yet spilled the children out of their doors. From where she sits, Lila can see into the park café, where a woman is restocking the drinks, and a little farther away to where a city employee bends over a bed of ragged marigolds. Closer, in the shade of a tall plane tree, stands a stroller.

There is a baby asleep inside. Lila can just make out the curve of her face above a pale pink blanket. Her cheeks are rosy and one dark tuft of hair escapes from beneath her cotton hat. Lila watches, fascinated, as the infant grimaces in her sleep, her eyelashes fluttering once, twice, before falling still again. The baby’s mother is over by the paddling pool. She has taken off her shoes and socks and is splashing through the shallows with a young boy of about two or three. Lila sits on the bench and watches them from behind dark sunglasses, twisting her coffee cup in her hands.

“Look, Mummy, a bee.” The boy points to something in the water, and his mother bends down next to him. Lila takes a sip of her coffee and allows her gaze to drift back toward the stroller. She knows the model, and that the brake is on. She knows that to release it you have to raise the white handle 180 degrees. She practiced only weeks ago in the shop.

The mother and her son scramble out of the far side of the pool and seem to search for something with which to scoop the bee from the water. The boy scampers across the concrete, then cries out. His mother goes to him, hugging him, brushing the dirt off his sole, and rerolling his already wet trousers.

A weak sun filters through the branches of the tree overhead, sending patterns of light dancing across Lila’s bare arms. From far away comes the sound of a football connecting with a boot, the delighted shriek of a child being pushed on a swing, the sound of a plane high overhead. The mother and boy enter the café. She sees them ask for something—a paper cup. Lila eyes the stroller and then stands.

She ignores the pain in her ribs and focuses instead on the thud of her heart as she moves closer. The baby’s lips are pursed now, opening and closing, suckling in her sleep. A fly buzzes over the stroller’s canopy, then lands on the pink blanket and creeps toward the baby’s face. Lila takes another step forward, fighting the urge to swat it away. Somewhere inside she registers the cold hollow of her heart. It would be so easy.

She reaches out and allows her hand to brush against the handlebar. The plastic is warm to her touch. The baby stirs. Behind her she hears the splash of feet in the paddling pool, the little boy’s giggle. “Get it, Mummy.” Lila gazes down at the sleeping baby and shudders. She steps backward away from the stroller, from the baby. She turns and makes her way along the path around the pool where the mother and son are working together to fish the bee from the water.

“He’s alive,” she hears the boy cry in delight.

“Don’t touch,” warns his mother, “he might sting.”

The woman glances up at Lila as she passes and throws her a smile. Lila gives the woman the slightest nod, the hot sting of her tears hidden behind her sunglasses as she makes her way out of the park gates and up the hill to her home, her heart hammering loudly all the way. Get a grip, Lila, she tells herself. Just get a bloody grip.


There’s a man at her front door as she approaches the house. He stands with his back to her, dressed in a motorcycle outfit and helmet, one finger pressed insistently on the doorbell.

“I’m here,” she says.

When he turns, all she can see are two dark eyes peering through the helmet. “Are you Lila Bailey?”


“You’ll need to sign.”

She nods and accepts the electronic pad from his hands, scrawls her signature, and hands it back to him. In return, he offers her a stiff cream envelope with her address neatly handwritten. Without another word, he heads to his waiting motorbike, which starts with a violent roar, and speeds away down the hill. Lila tucks the envelope under her arm and fumbles with her keys in the lock.

Inside, she bends carefully to retrieve the restaurant menus and bills scattered across the mat and adds them and the special delivery to the growing pile of unopened mail on the hall table. The whole lot cascades to the floor in a splash of paper, and she’s tempted to leave it until she remembers the mess will be the first thing Tom sees when he arrives home later that evening. Holding her ribs gingerly, she crouches to gather the envelopes and restacks them onto the table in two neat piles. The last one she picks up is the cream envelope from the courier. As she holds it, she feels a strange weight sliding and shifting within. There is definitely something rattling in there, something small but heavy. Intrigued, she moves away from the pile, the envelope still in her hand, and carries on up the stairs.

In the bathroom Lila runs a bath, as hot as she can stand, and watches as the steam billows into the air and mists on the mirror over the sink. She breathes deeply, then reaches for her pills, swallowing two before taking up the envelope again.

She slides her finger beneath the seal and pulls out a typed letter and several folded documents. She gives the envelope another shake, and a heavy silver key drops into the palm of her hand. She stares at it for a moment, then turns it over, feeling the reassuring weight of it in her hand, and when she is ready she reaches for the letter and begins to read.


Tom arrives home an hour later. She sees his distorted face come into view through the filmy surface of the bath water. She watches his eyes widen, his mouth open in alarm, before she rises up through the surface with a gasp, pushing her hair out of her face.

“Bloody hell,” exclaims Tom, one hand to his chest, “for a second…I thought…” He shakes his head. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like? I’m taking a bath.”

“Sorry, you scared me, that’s all.” He takes a deep breath, loosens the knot of his tie, then tries again in a steadier voice. “How was your day?”

“Fine.” She reaches for the flannel. “Yours?”

“Fine.” He hesitates. “Did you get out?”

“Yes, I went to the park. It was nice.” She can’t quite meet his eyes and busies herself instead with scrubbing her face.

“Good.” He smiles. “Did you talk to Suzie about work?”

Lila nods.


“It’s pretty quiet at the moment.” The water is cooling. Lila sits up and wraps her arms around her knees, resting her chin on top of them. “Most of our clients are cutting their budgets…she says I should take as long as I need.”

“That’s good.” Tom looks about the bathroom, his eyes landing on the key on the sink ledge. “What’s this?” he asks, reaching for it.

“It came today.”

“What’s it for?” He picks up the papers that came with it.

“I don’t know.” Lila tries not to feel annoyed that he’s reading her private letter without asking permission.

“Who are Messrs. Gordon and Boyd?”

“A law firm, I think.”

He looks up from the letter. “Is it to do with your father’s will?”

“I don’t know,” she says, trying to keep her voice even. “I don’t think so. It’s a different firm.”

Tom stares at her, then shrugs and places the key back on the edge of the sink. “I’ll see you downstairs?”

“Sure,” she says, and she watches him go, waits for the door to close behind him, before she twists the hot tap on again and slides once more beneath the surface of the water.


They eat dinner together in the kitchen, Lila in her pajamas, her hair damp from the bath, Tom hunched over his plate, still wearing his work clothes. “Did you see anyone today?” he asks at last, breaking the silence.


“Make any plans for tomorrow?”

She shakes her head.

“Mum says she’s going to give you a call. She’s wondering if you fancy meeting her in town later this week.”

She eyes him carefully. “I don’t need you making arrangements for me, Tom.”

“It’s not like that. She wants to see you.”

Lila raises an eyebrow before returning to the food on her plate. She’s not hungry, but she pushes the chicken around, trying to make it disappear.

He sighs. “Lila, I get it. First your dad’s heart attack…then…” He can’t say it and she can’t meet his eye. Tom clears his throat and tries again. “I just don’t think it’s healthy for you to shut yourself away all day. You’re grieving, yes, but you might feel better if you got out and saw a few friends.”

She shakes her head. “I’m fine. I told you, I went to the park.”

“Yes, but just drifting around on your own isn’t—”

“Tom,” she warns. “Stop trying to organize my life. Stop trying to fix me.”

He throws up his hands and they both turn back to their plates, with nothing but the occasional scrape of cutlery to break the silence.

“So what are you going to do about that letter?” he asks carefully. “Seems very odd, if you ask me.”

Lila nods. “I know. Why would someone leave me a piece of land?”

“Is it part of your dad’s estate?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. That was all wrapped up a few weeks ago. I received some money, but there was no mention of any land. Besides, the letter specifies that it’s an anonymous gift.”

Tom frowns. “Did you look at the map? It’s a sizable plot. Do you know the area?”

“No. It looks very remote…up on the edge of the Peak District. I’ve never even been there before.”

The furrows in Tom’s brow deepen. “You should call the lawyers tomorrow and try to find out more. They’ll be able to tell you something.”

“Yes.” She scrapes the remains of her uneaten dinner to the side of her plate, then lays her cutlery carefully in the center. “I suppose if that fails, I could just head up there and take a look around myself.”

Tom’s hands fall still, his knife and fork hovering over his plate.

“Why do you look so surprised? I’ve got the map and that key. What would be the harm?”

“It all just seems a bit odd.”

“We could go together,” she offers. “This weekend, or the next. It would be good to get away, even for just a day or two.”

Tom hesitates, seemingly surprised by Lila’s sudden desire to do something. She knows it must seem strange when she has spent the last few weeks holed up at home, doing very little besides sleeping and crying and wandering aimlessly. But the prospect of going somewhere new and remote, somewhere no one knows them or what’s happened to them, is strangely appealing.

He shakes his head. “I can’t go anywhere until I’ve had my latest design passed.”

“Well,” she says, dropping her gaze to the table, “I could always go on my own.”

“No,” says Tom quickly. “I’d like to come. Just give me a week or two.” He smiles. “You’re right, it might be fun. A complete change of scene…an adventure.”

She reaches across for his plate, stacks it on top of her own, and then carries them over to the trash where she scrapes the remains of their uneaten dinner. Neither of them, it seems, is terribly hungry.


Later, in bed, Tom reaches for her and tries to pull her close. His fingers connect with the bruises on her ribs, and she inhales sharply. “Sorry,” he says, “does it still hurt?”

“Yes.” She rolls away from him and stares into the darkness. Of course it still hurts. She is afraid it will always hurt, that the pain lodged in her chest is never going to go away.

“Sorry,” he murmurs again.

She can feel him shift on the mattress and knows that he is lying on his back staring up at the ceiling. They are only inches apart, but somehow the distance between them feels immense. There’s still so much they haven’t talked about. Words and scenes arrive unwanted in her head, but she tries to focus instead on the gradual slowing of Tom’s breath.

She knows she won’t sleep. Her body is wired, her limbs restless, her mind galloping, but there is fear, too—fear of sleep; fear of that sensation of tipping over the edge into darkness; fear of falling into oblivion. She waits until Tom is snoring gently, then slides silently out from between the sheets and tiptoes into the bathroom.

The bottle of pills is half-full. The doctor has been generous with her prescription; she’d suggested she might stop taking them after a week or so, when the anxiety had begun to ease, but Lila’s been growing accustomed to that slow softening sensation that creeps up and dulls the pain, that blurs the sharp edges of her mind, and so she twists the lid off the bottle and swallows another two pills with a gulp of water straight from the tap.

Downstairs, the letter still lies on the dining table, the key glinting beside it in the glow of a streetlamp. As she waits for the drugs to do their work, she pulls out a chair and reaches for the key, holding it carefully in the center of her palm. Sounds of the city echo around her—a distant siren, the click of high heels on pavement, the faraway bark of a dog—and as the darkest shadows inside her head begin to soften and fade, she finds herself wondering about the mysterious key—and the lock it will fit into—and what might lie behind the door it opens.




They appear in the kitchen one by one, seduced by the sound of clinking bottles and the heady scent of marijuana, until all five of them are sitting around the lopsided wooden table, swigging beer and passing spliffs. Someone hits play on the squeaky tape deck and the opening chords to “Going Underground” start up, blaring out into the hot, still night. Hanging in the smoke above their heads is an air of waiting: waiting for a breeze, waiting to move out, waiting for real life to begin.

“So I guess summer’s arrived,” says Kat, swirling the remaining beer around and around at the bottom of her bottle. Her bare feet are propped on the edge of the table and she reaches up and lifts her thick chestnut-colored hair off the back of her neck, twisting it up into a knot. “It’s so hot tonight.”

“I saw some kids frying an egg on the hood of a car earlier,” says Ben, sprinkling tobacco along the length of a rolling paper before adding a generous layer of weed. “It looked pretty good. I’d have eaten it.”

“Why am I not surprised?” says Carla, rolling her eyes.

A candle flickers on the table between them, refracting off the empty beer bottles strewn around and casting them all in a strange, weaving light. Kat plays with the loose threads on her denim cut-offs. “I suppose we should be grateful. It’ll probably be pouring rain next week.” She shakes her head in frustration. “We should be celebrating…doing something…not just sitting here watching eggs fry.”

Simon gives a low laugh from the head of the table and spins the lid of his beer bottle before him like a top. “You mean a last hurrah before we all head home to line up at the local job center?”

“Look at us,” says Ben, licking the cigarette paper and folding it with well-practiced precision. “Illustrious graduates, class of 1980. Three years in this place and all we’re qualified to do is roll a mean joint and hold our liquor.” He twists the end of the joint and adds a roach.

“Speak for yourself,” says Kat. She’s spent the last few weeks sending in job applications, and though she’s received nothing but the curtest of rejections so far, she’s still hopeful.

“Besides, I’m still not sure Mac here can hold his drink.” Simon nods across to where Mac sits slumped in the corner, his dark hair falling like a curtain across his face.

Ben laughs and snaps open his Zippo, puts the flame to the end of the joint, and burns off the paper twist. Satisfied with his handiwork, he lifts the spliff to his lips and draws deeply, twice, until the cherry glows red. He takes another drag and then passes it to Simon. Kat watches Simon inhale, the movement hollowing his face and exaggerating the high angle of his cheekbones. He tips his chin to the ceiling and exhales smoke in one long, steady stream above his head. He takes another drag and then passes it on to Carla. Kat is still watching him when he turns back to the table and catches her eye. He grins at her through the darkness.

The tape ends with a click. Kat stands to flip it over and when she returns to her seat, she notices how the candlelight has cast the five of them inside a golden bubble, masking some of the more unsavory details of their student digs. Hidden out on the edges of the room are the lopsided electric stove with its crusty grate, the overflowing trash can and a teetering stack of dirty pots and pans they long ago lost the energy to fight about. Kat knows that eventually someone will cave in and that it will probably be her or Carla. But for now it’s just her and her friends and the music and the smoke hanging above their heads. Kat looks about at her odd, makeshift student-family and smiles. A golden bubble: she supposes that’s what they’ve been living inside these last few years at university.

“Is he asleep?” Carla asks, nodding her head at Mac.

“Dunno. Mac!” Simon leans across and pokes him in the ribs. “Mac, wake up.”

“What?” says Mac, flicking his hair out of his face and rubbing his eyes. “I’m awake.”

“Sure you are.”

“Don’t sleep,” urges Carla. “It’s one of our last nights together. Let’s not waste it.”

One of our last nights together. “Yes,” agrees Kat quickly, “let’s not waste a minute. Let’s do something.” She peels a long strip from the label of her beer bottle. “I mean, you’re all irritating as hell to live with and everything, but even I will admit I’m going to miss this.”

“OK,” says Simon. “What did you have in mind?”

“Tomorrow’s supposed to be hot again…how about a trip to the beach?” Carla leans into the crook of Ben’s arm. “Swimming…fish and chips…ice cream. You’d drive us, wouldn’t you, Mac?”

Mac yawns. “Sure.”

Simon shakes his head. “Everyone will have had the same idea. It’d be unbearable. Besides, it would take us most of the day to get to the coast.”

“There’s always the canal out back.” Ben grins, taking a deep drag on the dwindling spliff. “You know, if you just really want to swim.”

Kat gives a horrified laugh. “You really are an animal, Ben. Only you could think of jumping into that cesspool.” She turns to Carla. “And you sleep with this guy?”

Ben gives a loud, beery belch and then nuzzles into Carla’s neck. “Don’t be fooled by her ladylike exterior, she loves a bit of rough.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Carla, knocking him on the head affectionately.

Kat waves the joint on as it moves around the circle; she’s drunk too much already, and the hideous, patterned linoleum floor is beginning to shift and swirl alarmingly before her eyes. They are all silent for a moment until Mac speaks up, his voice so quiet they have to lean in to hear him. “There’s a place…” He hesitates. “A lake. Out in the countryside. I went there once when I was a kid.” He clears his throat. “It was all right…you know…nice.”

“A proper lake?” asks Kat, narrowing her eyes.

“Yeah.” Mac nods, shaking his hair from his eyes. “I could probably find it again.”

“How far?” asks Simon, the lid of his bottle lying flat in his hand.

Mac shrugs. “I reckon an hour or two north of here.”

“What do you think?” Simon asks, turning to the others, his dark eyes flashing in the candlelight.

Carla reaches for the neck of her T-shirt and flaps it away from her skin. “I’m so hot I’m almost tempted by the canal. You can count me in.”

Ben nods. “And me.”

“Me too,” says Kat, placing the cool glass of the beer bottle against her forehead.

They all turn to look at Simon. He stares back at them, his eyes black and unreadable. Watching him, Kat feels the familiar catch in the back of her throat. Say yes, she wills him.

In one movement, he spins the bottle lid into the air, catches it, and flips it onto the back of his hand, inspecting it as if it were a coin. “Let’s do it,” he says with a grin, tossing his dark hair out of his eyes. “We deserve a little celebration, right, before we pack up this place and leave…?”

“Tomorrow?” asks Kat.

“Tomorrow,” he confirms, and Kat feels her face relax into a smile.


She half expects the others to forget the plan by morning, so she’s surprised to find them all squeezed into Mac’s old Fiesta and heading out of the city just as the clock in the Market Square chimes ten. Simon calls “shotgun” while Carla, Ben, and Kat are left to cram into the backseat. All of them, it seems, are buoyed by the idea of escape. Carla has even found time to make cheese sandwiches and pack a cool bag with beer and lemonade, the glass bottles clinking cheerily in the back as they drive out of the city.

“No funny business,” Kat warns, seeing Ben’s hand creeping up the inside of Carla’s thigh. She angles herself away from them and stares instead at the curve of Simon’s neck, just visible through the gap in the headrest. She sees the faint sheen of sweat on his olive skin and the heart-shaped mole just below the lobe of his left ear where his hair curls.


On Sale
May 6, 2014
Page Count
400 pages

Hannah Richell

About the Author

Hannah Richell was born in England. After graduating from the University of Nottingham, she worked in the book publishing and film industries. She now lives with her husband and two young children in Sydney, Australia.

Learn more about this author