Award-winning writer Aislinn Hunter’s new novel, The World Before Us (her first book of fiction since 2002’s Stay), is a story of two worlds and how they intersect.
The world of the present involves a lonely woman trying to make peace with her past. The second world is 125 years in the past where people of a small English village lived in the shadow of a mental institution.
In both worlds, there’s a mystery of a disappearing girl to be solved. Through a somewhat heavy but manageable story, Hunter reminds us that the entire world does not revolve around us, but entire worlds can revolve around us. So much of the book digs deep into the characters’ memories and how they might have missed something right in front of them.
Unfortunately, Hunter’s novel has so many layers and characters it’s sometimes hard to figure out whose world we’re in. The novel tests our memories along with those of the characters. It’s a maze of shared experiences. This is not a book you can set down and come back to. Stick with it.
The majority of the novel is told through the eyes of 30-something archivist Jane Standen, a well-educated, worldly and somewhat privileged academic. The rest of the storytelling responsibility is put upon a different kind of worldly group leader whose identity is revealed along with the story. These two remind us that we are definitely less alone than we think.
Jane’s life is in limbo for two reasons. First, the small London museum where she has worked since college is closing because of lack of funding, so she has a lot of time on her hands. Then, a man from her past steps back into her life just long enough to send her into hiding, something she’s done before.
Twenty years ago, 15-year-old Jane was babysitting a trying 5-year-old named Lily as they tagged along on her father’s research trip in the woods. Poor Jane managed to take her eyes off of Lily long enough to lose her. While Lily’s father doesn’t really blame Jane, he also doesn’t comfort her. In fact, no one in her life can and will ever really comfort Jane. She’s tough on herself and pretty tough on others.
In the last days of the museum, Lily’s father is invited to speak about a book he’s just published, and when Jane encounters him, it’s not pretty. This episode sends her into hiding, only she chooses to hide in the same village where she once lived and where she lost Lily.
Luckily, this is where Jane’s story gets interesting. She turns her attention to a completely different missing girl. More than a century ago, the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics was running in full swing, and everyone in the village was connected to it in some way. There are great stories about the patients, the parties and even the electroshock therapy.
The mystery of the past involves a young girl Jane only knows by the letter N.
The World Before Us is a sometimes rocky road. There are easy moments in the book, and times in the story where it’s easy to get lost and confused.
These multilayered stories and histories all have a purpose. Shift through them with an open mind, knowing that Hunter will get to the point.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are not alone. The past and present create a delicate balancing act that makes us who we are.
by Aislinn Hunter
Audiobook: Random House Audio, $45; read by actress Fiona Hardingham.