Anna Hope’s last book, Wake, stood out from the crowd of books telling stories of the First World War and its aftermath that were published one hundred years after that start of that conflict. It was so very right that I wondered if a subsequent novel could emerge from its shadow and stand in the light.
I have found out that it could.
This story is set a little earlier, in the summer of 1911, in an asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors where men and women meet briefly once a week to dance, in the ballroom that lay between the two separate wings of the institution.
It has its roots in reality – there really was such a ballroom – and Anna Hope has spun a wonderful fiction around it.
She tells the stories of three lives:
Ella Fay was a factory worker who reached up and broke a window to let in the light. That led to her committal; she was shocked, but she decided that the best thing she could do was to keep her head down, to do whatever was asked of her, and to hope that would eventually lead to her release.
She was assessed by Dr Charles Fuller, who has defied the controlling father who had grand plans for him to take a job that he hoped would allow him to bring together his love of music and his modern views about therapy for the mentally ill. He brought men and women together in the ballroom, and he began to write a paper that he believed would win him recognition.
John Mulligan was in the asylum before Ella, he was a member of one of its working parties, and so he was able to see the world beyond its walls. He saw Ella in the ballroom, he thought of her constantly, he began to dream of a future, and he knew that he had to find a way to communicate with her.
He succeeds, but, because he was at the centre of Charles’ plans, his actions will have consequences that he could never have foreseen.
The story is compelling, because these three people and their lives were drawn so well; they had such depth, and they were utterly, sometimes horribly believable. I was drawn in, and I was made to care so much about what was happening, about what might happen.
The story of Ella’s friend, Clem, a private patient whose family hoped that she would be cured and returned to them, was particularly moving. I’m trying not to mention specifics, but I have to mention that.
I realised that the line between sanity and insanity was fine; and that somebody was going to cross that line.
Anna Hope’s writing was simple, clear, and profound. It created a world that was quite perfectly realised; illuminated by bursts of description that were both natural and beautiful, and by telling details that were so very well chosen.
I appreciated that things were not black and white. The asylum was home to some who should never have been there, but it was also home to many who did have to be there, who could not have survived anywhere else. There were staff who had no understanding, but there were also staff who had compassion for the asylum’s inmates. There were some appalling attitudes, but there were also views that were informed and enlightened.
But, of course, nothing was – nothing could be – simple.
The plot is beautifully constructed and controlled. I was particularly taken with the way that the author gradually opened out different stories, with the way she set her story very firmly in its period, and that her story was always a very real human story set in a very real world. It would have been so easy to add a drop of melodrama or a dash of the gothic, but she didn’t and her story is so much better, and so much more distinctive for it.
There was a hint of contrivance in the epilogue, but that is easily justified, because it was so moving and so right.
Anna Hope made me think and she made me feel; she wrote with such a depth of understanding, and she has created another story that speaks profoundly and had that capacity to touch both heads and heads.