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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review of "The World Before Us" by Aislinn Hunter

This book won the 2015 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize which is awarded annually to a British Columbia or Yukon author for the best original work of literary fiction. The award, established in 1985, is named in honour of Canadian author Ethel Wilson.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
4 Stars
The title, which can be interpreted in more than one way, signals the thematic depth of this book which gives readers a different way to look at the world before us while, at the same time, suggesting that those who lived in the world before us are still affecting the world before us.

When Jane Standen was fifteen, Lily Eliot, the five-year-old girl she was minding, disappeared near Inglewood House and was never found. Two decades later, Jane is an archivist at the soon-to-close Chester Museum in London. Research leads her to discover there was a connection between the Chester family which founded the museum and the residents of Inglewood House; in fact, she learns that a young girl, known only as N, disappeared from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics near Inglewood House in 1877, near the same area Lily went missing. Jane decides to try and discover what happened to N.

There is an unusual element to the narration. Jane’s story is narrated in third person, but she is accompanied by an invisible chorus of voices, the leader speaking in first person plural. This collective comments throughout on what Jane is doing and how she is feeling, much like a Greek chorus would in a drama. One of the mysteries is the identity of this group. They are not exactly ghosts; one of the children in the group “thinks it’s fun to pretend he’s dead.” Jane is unaware of them but they can sense each other: “every presence has a kind of weight, something felt: moods and shifts and feelings, a steady pulse of being.” The narrator speaks of their being lost with Jane being “the closest thing we’ve got to a map.” Their hope is that “eventually we might discover who we have been, what purpose we serve and what use we might one day be.” At first, I was perturbed by this “supernatural” element, but gradually realized that the presence and commentary of this otherworldly group provide thematic depth.

A major theme is that of the interplay of past and present. Jane’s sections are narrated in the present tense, but it is obvious that she is very much defined by her past. The trauma of Lily’s disappearance has had lasting effects. As an archivist, she has an intense relationship with the past: “so much can be recreated; all the bits and snippets – the receipts for roses, inventories tucked into books, even sherry glasses or cigar boxes or the worn clasp on a velvet band – are enough to conjure whole lives.” Gradually it becomes clearer who the unseen presences were; it seems almost as if they were revived by Jane when she began her research: “This is why we’re here: because Jane thinks about us almost as much as she thinks about herself, because the distance between her life and ours is not as great as with others.” “The living only see what’s useful” and so tend to disregard much. Like Jane, when she visited the cave paintings at Font-de-Gaume and didn’t realize she had been “surrounded” by drawings, we are surrounded by the past. In the end perhaps it is best to think of the chorus as a reminder of past lives who “are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” Perhaps those who lived in the world before us now have “a different way of relating to the world, another mode of being,” another way of seeing the world before us.

Besides the unique narrative technique, there is also the inconclusiveness of the ending that will discomfit some readers. There are several unanswered questions. I don’t like unnecessary loose ends, but the ending of this novel is appropriate to its subject matter. Who knows what ripples into the future, Janes present and past will have. Thus the closing sentence is wonderful: “And across the road the clock tower strikes six o’clock – a strong brass chord – and a chorus of bells follows.”

The book is beautifully written; it possesses strong lyrical qualities. At the same time, it examines serious themes for the reader to contemplate. Readers have reasons to read it more than once.