review by Maryom
For the patients at Sharston asylum, Friday evenings are special. The men and women, so carefully segregated the rest of the week, are allowed to meet in the fabulous ballroom at the heart of the building, to listen to music, to dance, to meet and behave as 'normal' people. In this unlikely setting, John and Ella meet, and fall in love. But participation is a treat reserved for the 'well-behaved', permission is given and withdrawn on the whim of the doctors, and not all of Ella's efforts to 'be good' can avoid the couple being parted.
For this her second novel, Anna Hope goes back to 1911, to a remote asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, for a story about finding love in the most unlikely place, a story in which human feelings clash with science and ambition.
The story unfolds from three points of view - those of John, Ella and Dr Charles Fuller. The reader is introduced to the asylum through Ella's eyes as she is first admitted - the reason for her incarceration is a fit of temper or despair at the mindless,monotonous drudgery of life at the mill where she works. In her frustration she breaks a window, and fights viciously with the men who try to restrain her, but while she expects to be arrested for her act, finding herself in a mental asylum comes as a shock. She soon realises that the only possibility of leaving lies through following her mother's advice 'be good'.
John is melancholy and depressed, but Ella opens up new possibilities for him, of love, freedom and hope.
Initially the regime at Sharston asylum seems progressive and comparatively enlightened - there's none of the electric shock treatment or cold plunge baths that I've read of elsewhere; perhaps those forms of treatment are reserved for the chronically ill who disappear to their own wing of the building unlikely to ever emerge. For those deemed 'acute' and therefore curable, rehabilitation consists mainly of a combination of strenuous physical work in the mornings and quiet reflective times in the afternoons when one of the younger doctors, Charles Fuller, has introduced the concept of playing the piano to calm his patients' anxieties. But the lives of the patients still depend entirely on the whims of the staff and doctors - and as Fuller begins to feel these enlightened ideas leading him down what he sees as a slippery slope to depravity, he reacts by adopting a hostile, repressive attitude. Oddly, perhaps, as I felt no sympathy for him, Charles' character development was the most interesting of the three; from seeing his patients as people in need of solicitude and encouragement, he becomes eager to oppress them whenever possible, turning his feeling of self-hatred on to them.
I found Anna Hope's debut Wake moving and engrossing, and the Ballroom is too - but even better! The slow reveal of character, the balancing of a love story against the building of tension between John and Charles, the growing dread that in his role as doctor, Charles has the opportunity to enact revenge in the name of science and progress, all add up to a wonderful read. As with so many novels that I love, it can be read at various 'depths' - take it at its surface as a compelling read or seek out the underlying issues, both scientific and personal. I loved it, and I think it will be one of this year's 'must reads'.
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - DoubledayGenre - adult historical fiction,