Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The World Before Us by Aislin Hunter

In the tradition of A. S. Byatt's Possession, a hauntingly poignant novel about madness, loss, and the ties that bind our past to our present. 

Deep in the woods of northern England, somewhere between a dilapidated estate and an abandoned Victorian asylum, fifteen-year-old Jane Standen lived through a nightmare.  She was babysitting a sweet young girl named Lily, and in one fleeting moment, lost her. The little girl was never found, leaving her family and Jane devastated. 

Twenty years later, Jane is an archivist at a small London museum that is about to close for lack of funding. As a final research project--an endeavor inspired in part by her painful past--Jane surveys the archives for information related to another missing person: a woman who disappeared over one hundred years ago in the same woods where Lily was lost. As Jane pieces moments in history together, a portrait of a fascinating group of people starts to unfurl. Inexplicably tied to the mysterious disappearance of long ago, Jane finds tender details of their lives at the country estate and in the asylum that are linked to her own heartbroken world, and their story from all those years ago may now help Jane find a way to move on. 

In riveting, beautiful prose, The World Before Us explores the powerful notion that history is a closely connected part of us--kept alive by the resonance of our daily choices--reminding us of the possibility that we are less alone than we might think.

Opening Sentences:  The Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics sat along a carriage track most people travelled only once. Imagine late summer: sunlight splayed over the rutted road and the copper peaks of the buildings, its warmth nested in the crowns of the trees and sinking into the bright-green lawn of the viewing mound. 

My Review

For those who love haunting, gothic tales, this book is sure to please. It is a story of obsession and madness set in an insane asylum. The novel’s protagonist is a young woman named Jane who is troubled by a tragedy that happened in her past when Lily, a young child she was tending, mysteriously disappeared while the child was in her charge and they were on an outing together. This sinister event has haunted her into adulthood. Jane works as an archivist at a London Museum and is tasked with researching the circumstances surrounding a young woman who went missing from a Victorian asylum near where Lily went missing. The novel is also narrated by several ghosts – an idiot, a boy, and a theologian, ghosts that were once inmates of the insane asylum. 

The World Before Us is a highly imaginative, spooky tale with great depth and thought-provoking insight into the effect tragic circumstances have upon people and the thin line that exists between sanity and insanity. This novel is wonderfully complex, not a light read, but very profound in a psychological and contemplative way. As the story unravels, I could not help but become totally engrossed in this very unique gothic ghost story very much, and I hope you will too!

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