The World Before Us
Aislinn Hunter
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Buy *The World Before Us* by Aislinn Hunteronline

The World Before Us
Aislinn Hunter
368 pages
March 2015
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Poetry, madness, subversive love, and the power of nature are Hunter's central themes as her quiet, almost hypnotic prose lures us ever deeper into a story of twists and turns. The author melds a dramatic sense of history, tumbling us back into 1877 and the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics, the setting for the escape of three inmates: Herschel Morley, Charles Leeson, and a young girl whose identity remains a mystery. Walking out of the Whitmore and across ten miles of forest and fields, the three arrive at a great lawn bordered by hedges and the eerily bright marble of rearing horses in the recesses between the hewn trees. They suddenly find themselves on the arcaded portico of the great Inglewood Estate and are welcomed by the estate’s owner, George Farrington and his mother, Prudence.

Although Farrington eventually sends Morley and Leeson back to Whitmore, the girl’s whereabouts remains unknown, a mystery that truly flummoxes Hunter’s present-day narrator, Jane Standen. Jane works as an archivist at the renowned Chester Museum, but with Chester about to close its doors for good and Jane facing the real possibility of long-term unemployment, she decides to plunge into the details of inmates’ escape in which no further mention of the girl is to be found. Plagued by dreams about the Inglewood woods and the girl she only knows as “N,” Jane plans to devote her days to finding out the girl’s true identity. This is a culmination of her lifelong fascination with Whitmore and its world of beautiful and emboldened patients.

“History is shifty; it looks out for itself, and it moves when you least expect it.” That quote comes to mean much to Jane as she prepares for Chester Museum’s final lecture by author William Eliot. Eliot has recently written a book called Lost Gardens of England whose last chapter details George Farrington’s precious alpine gardens, gardens that make up a large part of the total Inglewood Estate. For years, Jane has imagined William’s life and how it must have changed “the compactness of it, and the self-imposed isolation.” Conscious of the sympathies of her family and friends and with the disappearance of William’s daughter, Lily, still fresh in her mind, Jane is secretly worried to face William again. She was only fifteen when Lily went missing, vanishing from the trails of Inglewood as if she were never there.

Inhabiting the past, present, and future like the museum objects around her, Jane “bears the time with equal complexity.” She must once again face William, along with the horror of Lily’s vanishing and the notion that the little girl’s accidental death or kidnapping was indeed an act of negligence on her part. Although the key to Jane’s grandparents' house was around Lily’s neck, no trace of her was ever found. Now the sudden reoccurrence of these nighttime dreams unleash Jane’s desire to drive up from London on the same road that she, William, and Lily took together to canvass the trail at Inglewood--much like William was doing when Lily first disappeared.

The story moves between Lily’s disappearance and Jane’s reconnections to William, the patients at the Whitmore Asylum, and the various other stakeholders who make up this complex mystery. Jane fanatically reads the notebooks of Charlotte and Edmund Chester, and also the letters and diaries of Prudence, George, and George’s wastrel brother, Norvill, hoping to find some clue to N’s whereabouts. What modern, educated woman like Jane would not want to know how to recover her history or to identify whom Edmund and Charlotte had loved? Determined to unlock the strange connection between Inglewood and Whitmore, Jane realizes she’s doing the only piece of research she’s ever chosen wholly for herself: discovering how some poor girl from a Victorian asylum went missing: “a girl called N who is perhaps somehow connected to a girl called Lily.”

Hunter writes beautifully of the trembling lunatics of Whitmore, ghosts trapped between centuries with their mannered speech and their gentlemanly ways. Carefully following Jane as she tumbles into her carefully calibrated research, the ghosts become bound to her “like the Thale butterflies on the natural history wall.” But Jane is also following in William’s tracks as she recalls him up ahead in the woods, ducking in and out of view then turning the corner. Jane remembers how she stood in a beautiful tract of meadow while Lily ran along a trail ahead of her. Jane was temporarily distracted, transfixed with the way the sun flickered over the leaves at her feet and how a box of light was framed by the trees.

From an ageless bracelet featuring a glass-encased scarab to Inglewood’s rustling woods that may even hide an accidental murder from the past, the ghosts of Whitmore hover, watching and waiting, shut off in a complementary netherworld unsure of who their real identities are. Mercurial and otherworldly, Hunter melds past and present into one time and place made motionless, where Jane herself becomes haunted by the power of history and tragedy.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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