19 December 2014

The world before her

The World Before UsThe World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The frequent comparisons between this book and A.S. Byatt's Possession are, I believe, misguided. Although both involve dual timelines and long-hidden secrets, Hunter's book focuses on memory, and eschews satire and verbal pyrotechnics.  Instead, she takes us inside the ghosts? shades? spirits? of the long-dead actors in a story connected to a long-shuttered Victorian asylum and a Victorian botanist. She shades struggle to remember who they were, and how their stories intertwined. So does archivist Jane Standen, whose dissertation included the asylum, and whose job is ending at the museum where she works is closing.

She has long been haunted by the disappearance of a girl from the asylum, known only as N, when she and two men walked to the botanist's house. The men returned; the girl did not. When Jane learns who is to speak at the gala for the museum's closing, she flees: The speaker, Jane's first crush, was the father of a little girl, Lily, who disappeared during a walk in the woods - when Jane was babysitting her. Jane goes to the village where both disappearances happened, searching for clues to the disappearance of N, and for clues to the tragedy that has defined her for many years.

An archivist preserves and sorts artifacts that keep the stories of a place and its residents alive. Some stories are more personal than others. N's disappearance might not have caught Jane's attention had Lily not disappeared. Others are less so, at least on the surface. The new owners of the botanist's house are recreating his gardens to be as they were in his lifetime.

As Jane reads the letters, journals, and logbooks, looking for clues into N's life and disappearance, the shades begin to recover their essences. As Jane begins a relationship with one of the gardeners, they also begin to remember how it felt to be alive, how their senses defined them.

The reader gets to absorb complexity in both timelines, and sees how Jane becomes more solid and complex as she assembles clues and allows the present - with risks and uncertainty - to to affect her as much as the past.

I was particularly taken by side-stories about the village and villagers, past and present, which deepened the theme of memory. One example: local miners who gather to remember their experiences as others, trapped, their stories told by the media, are in the long process of being rescued. The subterranean story illuminates the hope for salvation when the men can be brought to the surface to tell their own stories.

So, yes, this book is not Possession. Instead, it is a subtle tale of duality and memory, discovery and connection, which shines in its own, elegant, ultimately beautiful terms.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley, and this is an unbiased review.

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