My Review of "The Ballroom" by Anna Hope
I was desperate to read this thoughtful book having seen so many positive reviews and comments about it on Twitter. It is a novel that has clearly had a deep affect on people. The cover is also enticing- I love the imagery of the birds. This metaphor of flying and freedom is echoed throughout the story; the main character Ella is likened to a bird, "something small but wild....something made for flight..." It is a subtle reminder that the thrust of this book is an exploration of freedom and the different types of prisons we build for ourselves - not just externally with physical walls and boundaries but also internally through our mental and emotional states.
The novel is set in 1911 in Sharston Mental Asylum on the Yorkshire Moors. It is a reasonably progressive institute where the men and women are kept segregated apart from one night a week where they are invited to the exquisite Ballroom to dance. It is here that Ella, incarcerated for breaking a window while at work in the Mill and deemed to be hysterical, and John, a melancholic, quiet, but hard working Irish man, meet and fall in love. Dr Charles Fuller administers to the patients and in his initially more visionary approach, which endorses rehabilitation, he takes on the extra role as Bandmaster, attempting to use music and dancing as a therapeutic cure for these "defective" patients. It is a tale of "unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity and of who gets to decide which is which" (Goodreads.com) and as the front cover claims, "love is the only escape."
The prose is excellent. The writing is lyrical. The opening description of Ella attempting to flee the asylum is gripping and the jumbled short phrases capture the sense of her fear, confusion and desperation. The setting of the bleak Yorkshire Moors exaggerates the desolate atmosphere and sense of being ostracised and rejected from the rest of society. The derisive words used to described the "depraved and degenerate" "specimens", the "lunatic paupers" confining them to the "chronic ward"- their "feeble mindedness" which causes them to be treated as a "weaker", "inferior race" captures the cruelty of their plight. Research into Eugenics is beginning to dominate the scientific and political world with preparation of the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 (with the working title of "The Feeble Minded Bill"). Leading figures such as Darwin and Churchill are backing moves to introduce compulsive sterilisation of the "feeble minded" for fear of the country becoming over run and leading to a national disaster. Phrases like "raw fear", "swaying", "hands fluttering like two small birds to her chest", "glassy dead eyes" and haunting descriptions such as "women plucking at themselves, women staring into space" leave the reader with the same "panic" that "sent its dark roots deep inside" Ella on her arrivel. Hope's arresting descriptions embody the sense of confusion and befuddlement that consumes the "patients".
The novel adopts the effective device of presenting the story from three points of view which take it in turns to reveal the story. Each character offers a contrasting view of life at the asylum and madness.
Ella and John are "inmates". As the men and women are segregated, they have very different experiences of life at Sharston. John gets outside much more with physical labour and his constant observations of the weather emphasise the women's imprisonment. There is an obsession with the description of air, wind and sunshine which reiterate the themes of freedom and incarceration. It seems inappropriate for them to be in this place, despite glances of Ella's violent outbursts and her propensity for "hysteria" (which Charles claims is from the Greek word womb which confirms to him that hysteria is passed womb to womb, mother to mother- fascinating!) John and Ella's love brings hope, optimism and affirmation to the novel. Their gradual recognition of their shared emotions is endearing and affecting: "she was there when all other thoughts had fallen away."
By far the most interesting character though is Charles Fuller. Initially Charles brings the concept of music therapy and rehabilitation to the asylum. He has a vision and a drive to create new research. However his obsession to become a "superior man," to be accepted and his absolutely violent denial of his most inner feelings and acknowledgement of his true self, lead to a massively destructive path of danger and horror. He suddenly doubts his ability to "cure these people of their hereditary taints" ranting instead that the "incontinent and intemperate must be brought to hell." He struggles to maintain rational behaviour with to do lists and order but his self repression and delusions become more threatening. These passages are so well written that his spiralling thoughts are truly frightening. The reader is spellbound, left to decide for themselves who is really mad.
Hope has researched this novel thoroughly. The articles about Eugenics are horrifying and make this novel thought provoking and poignant. It is a real investigation of different degrees and experiences of madness, what people perceive to be madness and which characters are truly suffering from madness. The novel is also about power, obsession, love and a insight to the social and political time. It is captivating. It is stunning writing. The characters stay with you and I found the more peripheral character of Clem and her journey particularly engrossing as well as poignant and moving. This is a hugely atmospheric tale with vivd characters. I highly recommend you read it and decide for yourself who is the "superior" mind and the importance of valuing the true healing powers of music and literature.
Thank you to NetGalley for the free copy of this publication in return for a fair and honest review.
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