Madness and Mystery: A review of The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

In The World Before Us: A Novel, Aislinn Hunter tells the story of Jane, a scholar who is trying to solve a mysterious disappearance from a Victorian mental institution. Her own life has been marked by a parallel mystery in the same area, and thus her scholarly pursuit masks the desire for removing the mystery from her own. When she was a young teenager, she was watching a small girl for a scholar, William, studying the garden of a Victorian botanist. The 3 were taking a walk through the woods near the Victorian botanist’s estate–William working while Jane and his daughter, Lily, played together in the woods. Lily was running ahead to look at things and, after disappearing around a bend in the path, she disappeared. A frantic search was set off, but Lily was never found.

Jane had a crush on William, but after this event, she never saw him again. As she grew and William became well-known in scholarly circles, Jane began studying the mental institution near the estate. She discovered that 3 people left the institution one day, without permission, and walked the 11 miles to the estate. One of them, known only as N., never returned. Jane was immediately drawn to the story and set out to discover the truth about N.

While this is what drives Jane psychologically, what makes the novel interesting is the “ghosts” who follow Jane and narrate much of the book. They are mostly known by characteristics–the poet, the madman, the theologian, the girl with the soft voice–and they comment and witness Jane’s life. At the beginning of the novel, the museum where Jane works is preparing to close, and this worries the spirits that follow her.

We do not know what will happen when the Chester closes. Ask us what shape certainty takes and we will all point to a different corner of the museum…. We do not know how to recover our histories, to identify what or whom we loved. We cannot see ourselves except as loose human forms–like those caught moving down the street in the museum’s early Victorian photographs, figures whose blurred shapes become clearer the longer you look at them. We only know that we are drawn to certain objects, places and people, and that we are bound to Jane like the Thale butterflies in the natural history hall–pinned to the boards in their long glass cases.

This plural narration style and the mystery behind the ghosts’ identities are a constant presence throughout the novel. Like any mystery, the novel tends to defer discoveries and open questions, and sometimes this process goes on longer than necessary. Late in the book, Hunter introduces a love interest for Jane, but it is not central to the plot and seems like the longest of the unnecessary deferrals that exist only to hold off the conclusion where questions are finally answered.

Paste Magazine has listed The World Before Us as one of its best 15 novels of 2015 (so far), but I think that may be overstating Hunter’s accomplishment. This is an enjoyable novel, but not one I expect to see on many “best of” lists at the end of 2015.


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