'The future was coming. Even here. Even here in this island ship of souls, cast away on the green-brown seas of the moor, even here it would find its way through.'
Before I even started Anna Hope's second novel I know I would be in love. Firstly because her debut, Wake, was and still is one of the best books I've read in recent years; secondly, because it's set in 1911, based in an asylum on the Yorkshire moors and concerns eugenics. Tick, tick, tick and, you guessed it, tick.
There's a lot in this novel - it's part romance, part social commentary that touches on mental health, sexuality, eugenics, gender and class. With a different author this would have all gone horribly wrong, but Hope deals with each issue with such a lightness of touch that they blend into the narrative rather than tearing it apart. The Edwardian era is as much my jam as WW1 and I think this novel captures the anxieties of the period really well, to the point that ignoring the myriad social issues would have lessened its impact.
The Ballroom is written from three perspectives: the asylum inmates John and Ella, and Dr Charles Fuller. I'm a sucker for a multi-narrative novel anyway and I loved how Hope narrates a select few incidents from two or three perspectives. It feels more immersive that way and it prevented the characters from hiding behind their own narratives. If they didn't reveal something in their own, you can guarantee one of the others noticed it. This was particularly powerful in regards to Charles Fuller who initially pulled my sympathies in all directions.
The relationship between John and Ella is fascinating to read. It is so very human, very real, and yet has a mystic quality about it. As characters they're both quite enigmatic and although we're privy to their intimacy, it's still like we're kept at a distance. This felt really powerful and had me rooting for them both throughout.
Basically: this novel is all kinds of stunning and Anna Hope is a fantastic writer, crafter of tales and creator of character. Read it.
In three words: lyrical, beautiful, real
FYI this was my first book of the year and already has its spot firmly reserved in my top ten novels of 2016.
The Ballroom comes out on February 11th from Doubleday.
I received an ARC via Netgalley - thank you.