The Ballroom by Anna Hope

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The Ballroom by Anna Hope

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lauren True
Reviewed by Lauren True
Summary: Beautifully complex in its exploration of love, nature, freedom and humanity, this book leaves a reader with questions in their head and a tear in their eye.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: September 2016
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552779470

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The Richard and Judy Book Club Autumn 2016

Ella Fay does not know how a simple impulsive act landed her in the strict confines of a Yorkshire asylum. She does not know the stories of the other women there, or why the strange doctor plays them the piano, or where the patients go before they are never seen again. But there are two things she does know: she is not insane, and she will never stop struggling for freedom. Her spirit of escape ignites a spark of life within fellow patient John Mulligan, and a courtship flares into being as the couple are thrown together weekly in the ballroom for the Friday night dance. Yet with the odds stacked against them, and hope as fragile as the eggshells on which they have to tread, they find themselves in equal fear of what it is they are running away from, and what it is they are running towards.

Anna Hope brings the Yorkshire moors to life with her vibrant prose, which constantly considers all of the senses. The land and the sunshine and the swallows provide beautiful representation of the longing for freedom present within the characters, which fills their lives so much that even in the ballroom John considers the lines of dirt and earth on his hands, and Ella dreams of taking flight. John’s imaginative companion Dan Riley is known to salute the old oak and whisper to the wind and grass. This reverence for nature is something so alive throughout the novel that it surpasses mere description, becoming as much a part of the story as the asylum in which it is mostly set.

I particularly enjoyed the way in which the novel is told via three perspectives: Ella’s, John’s, and finally that of Dr Charles Fuller, second assistant medical officer at the asylum. This allows for us to experience the growing romantic bond between patients, whilst also gaining insight into the minds behind the working of the institution. Fuller is a man greatly interested in the eugenics argument - one of much debate in 1911, at which time the novel is set. He begins the novel with a firm stance against the shocking process of forcibly sterilising those believed to be degenerates, yet by the end of the novel has been taken in by the opposite argument, having lost all belief that a patient in an institute for the mentally ill could ever be a superior man. His perspective is troubling, and as a reader I found myself wondering whether his acts stem from his moral stance as an educated doctor (as he would lead Home Secretary Churchill to believe in the letters he writes to him) or rather from his inherent pride.

Another strength of Hope’s is her mastery of contrast - she makes the blossoming of feelings heart-wrenching and beautiful, yet never neglects to include the harsh reality of the situation. Clemency, a fellow patient of Ella’s, is perhaps the best example of this. Troubled and prone to self-harm, she turns to books for solace, and also the letters John sends Ella, since Ella cannot read. When the powers that be decide too much reading detracts from her acceptance of the realities and duties of life, she crumbles. It is a painful depiction of how small things are often dearest to us, and how the ambitions of women were viewed at the time. However, it is important in keeping the readers aware that there are dark sides to this story.

Based loosely on the life of the author’s great-great-grandfather, The Ballroom is honest, raw and definitely a book I would recommend to any history fan, nature lover, or seeker of a tender, tragic romance. If you enjoy this, I will also point you towards the equally troubling and intriguing The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin.

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