Although you can reach saturation point a few weeks in, one of the greatest joys of the New Year is reading and listening to everyone’s most anticipated books of 2016. The Ballroom; writer and actress Anna Hope‘s second novel in just over two years, featured on many lists in January and immediately caught my eye. Set in the oppressive corridors of an asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, this was just the ticket to while away the hours sheltering from the disgusting weather outside. After reading Patrick McGrath’s Asylum late last year, it was particularly interesting to see that, although sharing a similarly subtly oppressive feeling, how differently each author deals with the sensitive subject of mental health.
Set during the torturous heatwave of 1911, in a split three-way narrative we explore the lives of John and Ella, both patients at the asylum and Charles Fuller, their doctor. Charles is an enthusiastic, modern young psychiatrist who believes in the power of art to help heal the minds of his patients. Under his lead, a small band gather in the ballroom of the asylum every week, where patients on good behaviour are permitted to attend to dance the night away. Ella and John, both stupefied in their incarceration and desperate at first to hide themselves away in the shadows, lock eyes across the dance floor, finding solace and companionship in their mutual attraction. As Fuller’s personal life and ideals crumble, so does the wellbeing of his patients, leading to potentially disastrous consequences for our passionate pair…
Hope is an author of exceptional skill and subtlety and I devoured The Ballroom in just a few sittings. Though a pretty easy read, the depth of her characters and the quiet colours of asylum life on these desolate moors left me gripped.
Although the narrative is centered around the three main characters, the peripheral supporting cast are just as strong, drawing the reader in with intrigue but stopping short of ruining the mystery. Both John and Ella’s right hand men; Dan and Clem, are fascinating characters. Dan, with his sea shanties and rosy outlook on life, begs us to ask just how he has ended up in an asylum. Clementine Church; Ella’s saviour, with her serene, wise demeanour seems to hiding from something or someone out in the ‘real world’, rather than from herself. Her passion for reading one we can all identify with:
Unlike music, excessive reading has been shown to be dangerous for the female mind…Perhaps it would serve Miss Church to have a break from her books?
The asylum setting undoubtedly makes this novel difficult to place in time. Although set just before World War I, our minds are steeped in the Victorian institution and mindset that accompanies the patients. This view, unlike McGrath’s Asylum, that sees life from the other side of the bars, offers an all important imagining of the multi-faceted , complex nature of mental health,the conditions of life in such institutions during the early 20th century and the legitimacy of the admission of certain individuals deemed ‘unstable’; particularly women.
A wonderful read. The beautiful cover is worth a look alone.