Friday, 15 April 2016

Book Review: THE BALLROOM by Anna Hope

The Ballroom

The Ballroom
Author: Anna Hope
Publisher: Random House UK, Transworld Publishers
Read: April 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors,
where men and women are kept apart
by high walls and barred windows,
there is a ballroom vast and beautiful.
For one bright evening every week
they come together
and dance.
When John and Ella meet
It is a dance that will change
two lives forever.

Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, THE BALLROOM is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

My thoughts:

Charles Fuller, a medical officer at Sharston mental asylum located in the Yorkshire moors in 1911, is able to follow his true passion for music by organising a weekly dance for inmates, the only time the men and women of the asylum ever get together. Having observed the positive power of music on his patients, he is hoping that the program will offer him subject matter for a research paper he is writing – all he needs now is a research subject. It is for this reason that he first notices John, an Irishman committed to the asylum after suffering a severe bout of “melancholy” following the death of his infant daughter and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage. John, who has so far refused to take part in the weekly ballroom dances which are so popular with the other inmates. Forced to attend the dance, John initially keeps to himself, only reluctantly joining in the activities. It is during one of the dances that he notices pale, quiet Ella, declared “hysterical” after smashing a window at the factory she was working in to be able to see the sky. Ella, who once tried to escape the confines of the asylum, making it as far as the fields where John and the other men were working at the time. He remembers her running across the grass, making her desperate bid for freedom, and being caught by the guards and dragged back inside. The image still haunts him, and he is strangely touched by seeing her again. Intrigued by the mysterious girl he decides to write her a letter.

Thus begins an unusual, touching and heartbreaking love story between the two young people, victims of circumstance and of their time. As their growing affection slowly blossoms, Charles Fuller slowly spirals deeper and deeper into a madness of his own when he realises that his subject cannot be controlled. A madness, which will bring him into contact with the eugenics movement at the time, and make him one of its most fervent supporters. An interest that could have terrible consequences for John and Ella .....

The Ballroom brims with interesting and complex characters from various walks of life, brought together by circumstance. Charles is a good example of a man struggling with his own demons, coping only by projecting his issues onto his helpless subjects and slowly descending into fanaticism, using his faulty rationale to justify his actions. Whilst John and Ella’s love brings hope to the novel, like the beatings of tiny butterfly wings, a dark force slowly spreads across the pages, casting a shadow of doom as Charles spirals deeper and deeper into the abyss of his own madness.

I loved the way the author evoked the atmosphere of the time – a forbidding building set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors. Initially, the sweeping green landscape projects hope, but later becomes a harbinger of doom as a terrible drought strikes, destroying the crops and driving farmers out of their homes. Just as the people are at the mercy of nature, so are Ella and John at the mercy of their “captors”.

I am very happy to have stumbled across this novel on Netgalley and it touched me deeply. Whilst there is a love story at its centre, it is so much more than a romance. With attention to historical detail the author brought this story to life for me, and it played out in my mind like a movie I could not tear myself away from. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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