Reviewed by Judith Wilson
There’s an intriguing tension between the title of Anna Jones’s second novel, The Ballroom, and its setting: a bleak mental asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. The quote on the jacket – ‘A tale of unlikely love, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which’ – also piqued my interest. A love story? Yes please. The blurring of boundaries between madness and sanity? Yes again. A novel inspired by the author’s great-great-grandfather? Another yes. I’d previously admired the assured lyrical prose and historical perspective in Anna Jones’s debut novel, The Wake, set in 1918, so I was certain I’d be in for a treat.
The Ballroom didn’t disappoint. It revolves around three central characters: Ella and John, both inmates at the asylum, and Dr Charles Fuller, first assistant medical officer there. The story is told via these three multiple perspectives, a device I enjoyed and that takes the place of traditional chapters. In Book One, Winter-Spring 1911, mill-worker Ella is newly ensconced at the asylum; she’s been imprisoned after breaking a window ‘to see the sky’. Irish-born John has been an inmate for longer. Charles has brought in a new programme of music on the wards, designed to benefit the patients’ emotional wellbeing. He also brings selected inmates together, every Friday evening, for music and dancing in the asylum’s magnificent ballroom. The stage is set for John and Ella to meet, though it’s not until the end of Book One that the love story truly begins.
Anna Jones slowly peels back the layers of backstory, so we learn of Ella’s difficult childhood and her upbringing in poverty, and of John’s departure from Ireland after his baby died. Throughout Book Two, Spring-Summer 1911, Charles, with his musical programme, is secretly working on a paper to present to the first International Eugenics conference; simultaneously, we see his nascent homosexual streak emerge. There are also finely drawn secondary characters, from the well-educated Clem, highly strung and anorexic, to John’s side-kick, Dan. As summer progresses, we enjoy tantalizing glimpses of the rugged Yorkshire surroundings, ironically juxtaposed against the confinement that Ella must endure. One day John, who is allowed to do manual labour outdoors, delivers a swallow’s feather to Ella, an unbearably poignant moment. ‘There is something in those birds that makes me think of you … Something made for flight,’ he writes.
The course of love is never easy, but as readers we must watch the budding attraction between John and Ella unfold in the constant knowledge that it’s a forbidden, secret love. It is Clem, who writes letters on Ella’s behalf and also reads out John’s to Ella, who is a key conduit in the love affair. The physical tension between the couple, unable to meet yet desperate to escape, is sensitively done. Yet in parallel, there’s Charles’s growing physical obsession with John, which, despite the young doctor’s attempts to thwart it, ultimately leads to a sinister finale.
The best historical fiction wears its research lightly and Anna Jones has created this memorable tale with a feathery touch. Yes, we’re firmly rooted in the early 20th century, from the feral odours and disturbed inmates to the period architecture of the asylum, so her research is spot-on. Yet the characters’ personal dramas feel contemporary and relevant. I was desperate to know how Ella and John’s love affair would pan out and couldn’t put the book down. But the novel also focuses on a darker preoccupation of early 20th century England: eugenics, a social philosophy with the aim of improving the genetic quality of the human race. The greater Charles’s preoccupation with this theory grows, the more the novel bristles with tension and risk. The book has a fleeting Prologue, but like all the best Prologues, it was only when I reached the Epilogue that I was intrigued to turn back, and read it again.
I adored The Ballroom; it was simultaneously raw, heartbreaking and uplifting. Although I knew Anna Hope’s great-great-grandfather had inspired the novel, it wasn’t until I’d finished that I chose to read her careful explanation in the Author’s Note. It also served to remind me of the many individuals unfairly incarcerated in mental asylums in the previous century, and their countless and untold real-life stories.
One can rate a book using many criteria. We’re not supposed to judge by cover, but I can’t resist a beautiful jacket; the smart navy design for The Ballroom, with its subtle cage silhouettes and twin swallows flying in different directions, was particularly alluring. But most telling of all is that, since reading The Ballroom, I’ve found myself recommending it constantly. I can’t wait to read what Anna Hope writes next.
Judith can be found on Twitter as @judithwrites
Anna Hope, The Ballroom (Doubleday, 2016). 978-0857521965, 352 pp., hardback.
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