Saturday, April 25, 2015

The World Before Us

The World Before Us / Aislinn Hunter
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
419 p.

I read this book a while back, but it has taken me a while to share it. I'm not sure why, as I really liked it. I loved its slow and echoing atmosphere, and the actual physical book's design made it very nice to read (love this dreamy cover).

Jane Standen is an archivist in her mid 30s. She spends her days quietly, pondering the past through the power of everyday objects. Nearly twenty years ago, though, she was a young nanny to a five-year-old girl who went missing in the woods under her care. The girl was never found, and Jane has tortured herself with guilt ever since.

Besides being haunted by her own understanding of what happened all those years ago, Jane is haunted...quite a handful of ghostly voices, tied to her research into another missing woman, one who disappeared from a Victorian asylum nearly a century before.

Jane doesn't hear these voices, a chorus which reflects and responds to her own concerns. The reader, however, is guided and enlightened by their commentary. Eventually, anyhow, as the fragmentary dialogues coalesce into an understandable narrative. These ghosts are all connected to the asylum, the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. As Jane's research progresses, the story deepens to include past and present, contrasting Jane's seemingly vital worry and guilt about her present day issues with the drifting voices of those who also had vital concerns in their own present, now barely a memory for anyone still living. It is quite effective. The ghosts strive to remain active in Jane's imagination -- as they say in the beginning, "Start with Jane because our stories are tied to hers and everything depends on what she does with them."

As I was reading this, the unemotional writing style, and the concerns with the connections between memory and the fact of history, with the objects in our lives and their deep meanings, along with the academic characters, all combined to give me a sense of one of my favourite authors, Penelope Lively. What a fitting discovery, then, to find that Lively has just written a review of this novel in the New York Times which says everything I felt about this novel, both the parts I loved and those I felt some hesitancy with. I won't try to repeat those thoughts for myself, because I couldn't be nearly as succinct or evocative as Penelope Lively!

This quiet and yet complex book needs to be read again, I think. The writing will reward another reading; now that I know where the story is going I can slow down and enjoy each phrase. There were many parts at which I stopped to reread and admire the way something was written, and that for me was one of the joys of this book.

I'll finish with a quote that ponders history, memory, and Jane's work with the artifacts in her museum. These concepts are revisited throughout the story, and I think this quote highlights the way Hunter plays with them:
Memory being what it is, we sometimes remember backwards, or sideways, or inside out. We will read the name of a song and instead of its melody some of us might experience a tightness around the ribs, a corseting. Or we might recall the notes but instead of seeing the musicians playing will picture the diamond pattern of a floor. Applause spilling out from an audience might equal heartache; a leaflet for the Fancy Fair might put the taste of toffee in our mouths. History is never perfectly framed, although the photographs in the museum may suggest otherwise. 
This is a lovely, moving book, one that moves smoothly between present, past, memory, verifiable history, and anxious anticipation of an unknown future. I found Jane an interesting heroine, despite any mistaken decisions she takes. If you like philosophical books that take on the workings of the mind as much as those of the heart, featuring archivists, professors, writers and their ilk, redolent with lost Victorian lives -- well, you will love this one.


Further Reading:

My Ghosts by Mary Swan looks at memory and the links between past and present, within the confines of one family tree. While there are no 'ghosts' in actuality, not even the not-quite-there chorus of ghostly voices found in Hunter's book, Swan's ghosts of the title are the hidden ancestors in each of us. Similarly slowly and beautifully written as well.

Any of Penelope Lively's novels, with her characteristic concern for the vagaries of history and memory, would be a good match with this novel. Her children's novels A Stitch in Time and A House in Norham Gardens match up with the connections between objects and the past, while all of her adult novels tackle memory and our place in history in one way or another, and often reflect the tone in Hunter's novel as well.


  1. Thanks, I'm adding to my TBR list.

  2. Thanks, I'm adding to my TBR list.

  3. Melwyk, this sounds like a wonderful, quiet book that I'd enjoy reading, phrase by phrase. Excellent review! I'll keep The World Before Us in mind.

    1. It's perfect when you're in the mood for something quieter & thoughtful.

  4. I do love books with archivists, being one myself, and I am also a big fan of Penelope Lively's books. This sounds like a fascinating story, which I am adding to my reading list.

    1. I think she's really more of a curator in this setting, but still very appealing. I hope you'll find a copy!

  5. Ooh, I've not heard about this book before. It sounds really good!

    1. It is good! I believe it's just now being published in the US


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