Monday, April 20, 2015

The World Before Us

Title:  The World Before Us
Author:  Aislinn Hunter
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0553418521 / 978-0553418521

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books.

Opening Sentence:  "How many ways to begin?"

Favorite Quote:  "Names are the most valuable things. We have always said this. The are more valuable than the clocks, books, photographs and objects we find ourselves circling ... Names are pronouncements, entries, claims ... They say, I was, I am."

The World Before Us is a ghost story, in that, the ghosts are the main characters in the book. As such, the book is very different from what I expected. From the description, the book sounds like a mystery tying together two disappearances a century apart. The book actually is more a reflection on life and the things that bind us to the past and the things that define our identity.

The book is a very complex story, with multiple time periods, multiple narrators, and a whole lot of characters. The chronological timeline of the book is as follows: In the 1800s, a woman only identified as "N" disappears from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. About a century later, a little girl Lily disappears in the same woods. Jane, her babysitter, is traumatized by the event. Years later, Jane elects to study the Whitmore asylum as part of her graduate research. At age 34, Jane works in a museum and is still troubled by the two disappearances. The closing of the museum and an unexpected encounter with Lily's father, William, sends Jane running back to the same woods. She begins to search anew for the reasons behind the disappearances.

Jane's story is very scattered in this book and way too complicated. She is traumatized at age fifteen when Lily disappears. She builds a life, unable to let go of that trauma. Over the years, she has imagined the aftermath for William. Then, in flashbacks, she dreams of her own teenage crush on the man. Facing him in reality turns out to be nothing like her imaginings. So, now she is back in the town and woods around Whitmore. Why? It's never really made clear, except that the two disappearances have pretty much shaped her entire life. Along the way, she also lies about her identity and enters into an affair with a nineteen year old boy. By the end, nothing about Jane's story is resolved, and I am left puzzled by her choices.

Through Jane's research, we are also introduced to the Farringtons, who owned the estate near the Whitmore. Theirs is the story of wealth, sibling rivalries, parental favoritism, illicit affairs, and the prodigal son. It could be an entire family saga in and of itself expect for its cursory treatment here. Their story seems to be here to simply provide a setting for the first disappearance and a loose connection to the present.

Then, we have the group of ghosts, spirits, ethereal beings, or whatever you want to call them who surround Jane. They have no names and are at times like a collective Shakespearean chorus. Having lost their identity and their knowledge of who they were, they gather around Jane in the hopes that the work she does may perhaps reveal something about them. The group is very much like a family, with their disagreements but also the concern for each other.  Coming back to Whitmore and the neighboring Farrington estate triggers thoughts that perhaps they have been here before, perhaps they might know who they were.

Theirs is the most interesting part of the story, for it touches the most emotions and raises the philosophical questions in the book. The caring and the bickering and the sense of loss expressed so beautifully by the author makes these characters more alive than any of the living humans in the book. Although the entire book is a complicated a story that reaches no resolution, because of the characterization and writing of the ghosts, I look forward to reading more from the author.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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