The first novel by award-winning writer Lucy Hughes-Hallett is a wide-reaching, ambitious, epic of a book.

As a cultural historian and biographer her previous works were of non-fiction: her biography of the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio The Pike won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize, the Political Book Awards Political Biography of the Year and the Costa Biography Award.

Her erudition and enthusiasm shine through in this first foray into fiction – a work which was very close to her heart.

The book is centred on the Wychwood Estate – based on Oxfordshire’s Cornbury Park, where Lucy grew up as daughter of the estate’s agent: “When I was writing it, I had Cornbury in my mind’s eye,” says Hughes-Hallett.

Peculiar Ground begins in the 17th century, when a wall is being built around the great house, its ornamental lakes and majestic avenues planned by Mr Norris, landscape-maker. It’s a world where everyone has something to hide after decades of civil war.

Three centuries later, another wall goes up overnight, dividing Berlin, while at Wychwood, over one hot, languorous weekend, erotic entanglements are shadowed by news of historic change.

A little girl, Nell – daughter of the estate’s agent – observes all.

Nell grows up and Wychwood is invaded: there is a pop festival by the lake, a TV crew in the dining room and a Great Storm brewing.

As the Berlin Wall comes down, a fatwa signals a different ideological faultline and a refugee seeks safety in Wychwood.

Hughes-Hallett writes with great intelligence – and doesn’t underestimate that of her readers. The sprawl of historic events – such as the Aids epidemic and the furore over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses – are signposted but not directly spelled out.

And she’s a cracking story-teller too.

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Fourth Estate, £16.99