The Ballroom by Anna Hope

After Anna Hope’s justifiably feted debut Wake, there’s been palpable excitement on Twitter about her follow-up The Ballroom, so I was delighted to receive a review proof from the lovely people at Transworld. Set in the heatwave of 1911, it tells the story of John and Ella, two inmates of Sharston Asylum in Yorkshire. Kept segregated according to gender along with the other inmates, they first encounter one another during Ella’s unsuccessful escape attempt shortly after she has been sectioned, then again during the asylum’s weekly ballroom dances. Their meeting will change not only theirs, but the lives of many around them.

The Ballroom

John, an Irishman sectioned after the death of his daughter and the breakdown of his marriage, begins passing Ella letters, which simply describe the world outside the asylum – the fields he tends, the trees around the moors and the swallows in the sky which as a woman, she is locked away from. Between the touchingly simple correspondence that develops, and their weekly dances, a romance blossoms.

The story is told from the point of view of both John and Ella, but also that of Charles Fuller,  the asylum doctor. Initially an idealistic man, and a firm believer in the restorative powers of music, Charles is behind the weekly dances, and regularly plays music to the inmates. He also is very interested in eugenics, though doesn’t sit on the extreme fringes of the movement. In many ways, although more unacceptable today, Charles’s views aren’t a million miles away from those found in certain tabloid columns, or from the more right-wing politicians. However, throughout the book, as John and Ella lift each other out of their melancholy, Charles develops an obsession with John, which will lead eventually to tragedy, as the stifling heatwave appears to contribute to his breakdown.

Most books that I’ve read set in asylums in this era tend to focus on wives wrongly imprisoned so that their unscrupulous husbands may take possession of their fortune. The Ballroom differs in that it looks at the shocking treatment of people suffering a genuine mental breakdown just a hundred years ago. It was also fascinating to read about the eugenics movement, which I had no idea was so widespread. Far from the preserve of extreme-right politicians, many figures on the left were enthusiastic about it, and often by extension, forced sterilisation – from the founders of the Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw and Beveridge. The Manchester Guardian and the New Statesman too were great supporters. The horrors of the Holocaust appear to have been what caused most to recoil from the idea.

An often uneasy and unflinching read, The Ballroom is beautiful book with a touching love story at its centre.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope is published 11th February by Transworld

Wake

I heard some wonderful news today.

Whilst perusing twitter, I was delighted to hear that there is a new book by the fantastic Anna Hope in the pipeline for February (it’s in the diary!) and it reminded me of this review I wrote for her beautiful debut Wake last year, but didn’t have anywhere to publish. Fortuitously, Hayley suggested I join her over on Back to the Books, so here is my review!

Wake is set over five days, from the day the body of the Unknown Warrior is disinterred to its burial in Westminster Abbey. Told primarily from the point of view of three women, it is also interspersed with the stories of anonymous watchers who see the coffin pass.

Hettie, who lives in Hammersmith, is a dancer. She’s lost her father to Spanish Flu, and her brother is suffering from serious shell-shock. The youngest, she wants to forget the war. Evelyn works in the pensions office and is unable to recover from the death of her fiancé. Resigned to spinsterhood, she is stunned when a private comes in searching for her brother, and even more so when she finds out why. Ada is a woman in her forties who sees visions of her dead son Michael. She never received a letter telling her how he died, and has never really felt closure. The characters could be viewed as “stock” wartime female characters but are so much more than that. Their stories are sensitively and unflinchingly told, as they try to make sense of their own private losses, and of the preparations for the burial of the Unknown Soldier.  The stories of those watching the coffin pass, men and women who have lost loved ones, or who have survived the horror are equally touching.

Wake highlighted how overwhelming the grief following the war must have been – everyone lost somebody. As Ada watched the coffin pass, she momentarily feels certain that the battered tin hat adorning it is in fact Michael’s, before seeing another mother gasp, and realising that every mother, who were unable to bury their sons’ bodies, associates this unknown body with their own son.

Episodes like this, a small child convinced the body is that of the father she’s never known; a survivor of the war wondering at how he could have been so lucky to return, are so beautifully and movingly told and had me close to tears on more than one occasion.

Wake is a stunning debut, that I would recommend to everyone. A short book, it’s a quick, devastating and yet beautiful read, and I look forward to reading The Ballroom, published by Transworld and (I am informed by the Internet) is a story of love, obsession and eugenics.