I fell in love with The Ballroom as soon as I heard Anna Hope read from her upcoming novel at the Transworld's January-June 2016 Showcase last year. Not only did the proof cover look absolutely stunning, but her reading was beautiful and hugely intriguing, especially when the audience collectively gasped at the discovery of the location of the titular ballroom; inside an asylum at the start of the 20th century.
It is 1911 and Ella opens her eyes to find herself inside an asylum set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors. She knows she doesn't belong there, among the people who have so obviously lost their minds beyond the point of no return, but the doctor won't hear reason during her assessment so she makes a spur of the moment decision to break out while she still can. Ella manages to get out of the building and onto the grounds, but she's startled when she sees two men in front of her. She loses her footing and that's the end of it. The nurses catch up with her, and she is forced back inside.
John was outside during Ella's attempt escape, one of the men she spotted as she was trying to break free. Ella thought that he was trying to stop her, but he was actually encouraging her on, hoping she would succeed to leave before the bleak surroundings could seep into her mind. So when she's captured, he feels responsible and he can't get her out of his head. While the patients are segregated by gender, there is one day a week the men and women have the chance to mingle; during the dances in the ballroom on Friday evening. And that is where John and Ella eventually meet again.
Charles is the doctor who was assessing Ella when she escaped. He's an idealistic man who plays piano for the patients, believing that through the power of his music he can make a difference. He is even working on a paper for the First International Eugenics Congress, arguing the benefits of music over the more controversial notion of sterilisation, which at that time was gaining traction among the society members. But the harsh surroundings of his work place affect him too, and slowly but surely Charles' idealistic positivism crumbles down, with devastating effects on those at the heart of the conflict.
The Ballroom is an uncomfortable read at times, but also an eye-opening and powerful one that will linger in the back of my mind for a very long time. The believes on how to control the social class and 'feeble minded' are shocking to our 21st century eyes, yet these practices were all too real a mere hundred years ago. It's incredible that the eugenics movement was backed by powerful people such as Winston Churchill. And while perhaps never legalised, it still had annihilating effects on places not too dissimilar from the Sharston Asylum within this novel.
The desolation within these walls didn't leave anyone untouched and while we only get brief glimpses into the effects on most of the staff members, ones that retorted to aggression or inhumane actions towards the patients, it was the conflicted regression of Charles from a sensible and musically-focused man into one consumed by sheer obsession rivaling that of the people he was supposedly helping, that was the most fascinating and heart-wrenching one.
It makes you wonder whether anyone in the asylum ever really stood the chance of crawling back out of the darkness. With the exception of Clem (although she was at a disadvantage being an educated woman in a world still ruled by men), these were people already living at the very edges of society, and with limited means or social standing there was nothing to fight for, or with, once they'd been committed.
Despite the bleak backdrop, Anna Hope's lyrical way of storytelling added a surprising sense of grace and beauty to the story. From the very first page you know that this is not a novel that will finish on a happy ending, yet as Ella grasps to tiny seedlings of hope sprinkled throughout, so does the reader. Perhaps Ella, John and Clem will be able to break free from their seemingly unjustified imprisonment. And maybe Charles will finish his paper on the healing effects of music on the patients, sealing his standing within the Eugenics Education Society.
These moments of hope, so stunningly crafted by Anna Hope, is what makes The Ballroom a constantly enthralling discovery. There are real people at the heart of this heart-rending novel, and their journeys throughout are hugely enlightening and poignant.
The Ballroom is published by Transworld and you can buy a copy from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.
* * * Giveaway * * *Thanks to the lovely folks at Transworld I have a copy of The Ballroom to giveaway to one lucky winner (UK only).
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