The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter, has at its core two roughly similar mysteries. One occurred almost 20 years ago when the main character, Jane Standen, was only fifteen and acting as a nanny for William Eliot and his five-year old daughter Lily. While in Jane’s care, Lily suddenly disappeared at the gardens of the Farrington country estate. A little more than a hundred years earlier, another girl, a young woman known only as N— went missing in roughly the same area, her disappearance noted in the records of the nearby Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. Jane, now an archivist working for the Chester Museum, has been researching the asylum’s records and is determined to find out what happened to N—, a mystery that obviously echoes what happened with Lily.
The novel shifts back and forth in time between the two time periods. The present day narrative has three basic strands: Jane’s increasingly frantic attempts to find out what happened to N— (events have forced a suddenly tight deadline on Jane’s ability to do research at the Estate); her struggles to deal with the legacy of Lily’s disappearance, which she calls the “defining before and after of her life,” and an awkward potential romance with a nineteen-year-old she met at the Estate.
The earlier narrative also has a triad, one of setting/character rather than plot. In these sections we move between the Whitmore Hospital and several of its characters, the Farrington Estate and its sibling owners — George and Norville, and the house that will eventually become the Chester Museum, inhabited by Edmund and Charlotte Chester. A web of long-hidden links connects the three locations and their inhabitants, and it is this fine tracery that Jane struggles to bring to light.
What bridges the past and present, or perhaps melds is a better word than bridge, is a group of ghostly characters that hover about Jane and who narrate in the a first-person-plural. Sketchy at first, these characters slowly grow into themselves over the course of the novel, gaining names and memories and eventual pasts as Jane digs deeper into her research.
While I mostly enjoyed The World Before Us, the novel also had some issues. The first-person plural lends a lovely haunting (literally) effect to the novel and also allows Hunter to push her language into a more lyrical style — most of the more beautifully crafted lines and passages come from these segments. On the other hand, at times the first-person-plural seemed to interrupt the flow, negatively affecting the pace of the novel, and also at times seemed to drive home a little too bluntly what the reader would probably have already picked up. Generally though, the choice of narration was a winning one.
As mentioned, Jane’s need to find out what happened to N— is clearly connected to the trauma of Lily’s disappearance, and again, at times this connection is drawn a bit too clearly, as are other connections/parallels. Jane herself is a surprisingly flat character I felt, and not particularly likable. And I can’t say the romance with the nineteen-year-old felt did much to endear her to me, not did the boy or the romance feel particularly real (a worse sin than creating a character I don’t like). Part of this, of course, can be ascribed to the idea that since Lily, Jane has led a mostly stunted life and so her character simply is what she is at this point.
The other characters meanwhile — the asylum patients especially, but also the two Farringtons and the “ghosts” — felt wholly real and quite richly imagined. Even better, all of them start out that way and then have their various nooks and crannies gradually revealed, often in surprising or moving fashion.
Finally, a few plot points seemed to just be dropped entirely or their opportunities weren’t fully explored, such as her relationships with her father and brother, and another one or two I won’t go into so as not to spoil the plot. And the book is, I’d say, just a little over-long.
Still, the good here outweighed the less-than-good, and Hunter’s use of the first-person-plural, which could have been simply awful or at the least overly precious, makes the book well worth reading, both for the lyricism of the language and for the slow-developing, graceful arc of revelation that occurs within it. Recommended.
Double mysteries separated by time? A museum and an archivist? Playing with POV? Lyrical prose? I am so IN!
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I couldn’t have said it better myself, Marion!
As mentioned, it definitely has issues, but I’m pretty sure you both would like it. I was just thinking it’s almost like a cross between Possession and The Night Country (two big favorites of mine), if not as well written as either
Did I mention that I like the ambiguous title.