Author: Aislinn Hunter
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Synopsis from Goodreads:
When she was just fifteen, smart, sensitive Jane Standen lived through a nightmare: she lost the sweet five-year-old girl she was minding during a walk in the woods. The little girl was never found, leaving her family, and Jane, devastated. Now the grown-up Jane is an archivist at a small London museum that is about to close for lack of funding. As her one last project, she is searching the archives for scraps of information related to another missing person–a woman who disappeared some 125 years ago from a Victorian asylum. As the novel moves back and forth between the museum in contemporary London, the Victorian asylum, and a dilapidated country house that seems to connect both missing people, it unforgettably explores the repercussions of small acts, the power of affection, and the irrepressible vitality of everyday objects and events.
Here is a riveting, gorgeously written novel that powerfully reminds us of the possibility that we are less alone than we might think.
For lovers of history, mystery, archives, or memory, The World Before Us is the perfect read for you. In her upcoming novel, Hunter weaves an intricate tale of human existence to demonstrate that all that we are and all that we do is connected through time and distance.
Jane is an archivist. She is drawn into a story of a woman who goes missing near the Whitmore Hospital for convalescent Lunatics, a story that so closely parallels her own story of her young charge, who goes missing one day on a walk in the park. Jane, traumatized by her own experience, is fueled to solve the mystery of the missing N-. Her obsession is a passionate quest for healing that Jane has been searching for throughout her entire adult life. Her experiences are led by her inability to know the truth. She finds control in her own life by uncovering the mysteries of the past. The story is complicated and Jane struggles with some difficult thoughts, memory, and emotion.
This book was an excellent read, but I definitely have a few issues with it. I found the start to be less than welcoming. It took a long time to get into the story, but fear not! If you persevere, the story unfolds into a beautiful, intriguing, and romantic tale, Jane’s modern setting tightly knit with the setting’s Victorian past. The perspectives shift constantly from the modern era to the Victorian in a smooth and intelligently interconnected way. Each perspective reinforces and informs the other. This leads me to the second thing that caused me some issue in The World Before Us. Regularly, the story moves into a first person perspective with the speaker being the collective of ghosts from the asylum patients. For example, they might saw, “We watch Jane walk towards the bed.” or “We follow Jane out to the car.” It’s difficult to establish for much of the book who the “we” is and why they are narrating Jane’s actions in a play-by-play manner. It caused me a lot of confusion at the beginning. My first impression was that Jane herself was a ward of the asylum, suffering from schizophrenia. When I established the identities of these supernatural beings, their significance to the story slipped away. They are not helpful to Jane, they are only helpful to the reader in that the reader personally gets to know the asylum patients as they come to understand themselves through Jane’s research. Beyond that, to me they added no value.
Overall though, The World Before Us is a very enjoyable read. The story is compelling and the setting is stunningly captivating. Aislinn’s authorial style builds a beautiful and vivid world. Once you are engrossed, it’s impossible to put down.