1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
Wake by Anna Hope was one of my favourite books of 2014 (review here). I remember being amazed at how a story that was quiet in so many ways could be so impactive; how Hope could tell a story of the lives of three women over the course of five days and manage to say so much about post-war Britain. The Ballroom manages to do just the same thing. Through Ella and John's story, Hope manages to weave a commentary on the treatment (or lack of treatment) of mental health in the early 20th century without that commentary weighing too heavily on the plot or leaving it feeling laboured.
The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a simple wish to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute. There are other 'residents' who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today's standards (Ella's friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior. Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance. A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance. Ella and John's meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt. Their story isn't melodramatic. It's gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.
I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters. The way that they grow and change subtly until they're someone different entirely. Alongside Ella and John's narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer. Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn't the way to prevent the "spread" of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental 'deficiency' are quite capable of productivity. Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era. Gradual and utterly believable.
The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates a frazzled atmosphere. There's an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate. Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard I was actually hurting my hands and just willing both the characters I loved and those I hated to get the endings they deserved. I closed the novel in tears. Admittedly, that's not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.
Overall: Anna Hope's writing and characters are beautiful and I just don't feel as though I can convey in a review quite why they're so terrific. If you want to read historical fiction that will sneakily worm its way into your heart and stay there, I can think of few authors to recommend more highly than Anna Hope.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Date finished: 18 December 2015 Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader's Copy) Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review - thanks, Doubleday! Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday