Review by Sarah Richards
The World Before Us
Doubleday Canada, 2014
This novel explores the passage of time, or, more acutely, how echoes of the past can reverberate through time and eclipse the present. The ambiguity of the novel’s name encapsulates the central conflict at play: the friction between the world that transpired before us and the world that is laid out before us.
Our protagonist, 34-year-old Jane, is haunted by two mysterious disappearances that occurred 125 years apart. As a teenage babysitter, her young charge, Lily, disappears into the woods and is never seen again. Later, during her post-graduate fieldwork on archival practices in rural nineteenth-century asylums, she travels back to the same patch of forest in Yorkshire, England only to discover through her research that another girl named N also vanished there.
At the outset we learn of Jane’s more immediate concerns. Lily’s father reappears suddenly in her life, her career as an archivist at a flailing museum is ending, and, because she can’t let go of the past, Jane is increasingly alienated from her family and friends. To escape her crumbling life in London, she returns to the place where Lily and N vanished.
Guiding us on the journey is a first-person plural narrator. Though initially referred to individually by cryptic nicknames—“the idiot,” “the one with the soft voice,” and so on—their identities become clearer the deeper we dive into Jane’s research. While their presence is initially jarring and their discordant voices may at times compete with the other plot lines, the narration falls into a steady rhythm. They are the spirits that haunt Jane, and who now tell us the story of how Jane came to be haunted. They are former inhabitants of the now-defunct Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics and Inglewood manor, who lived in 1877.
How, you might ask, do we see ourselves? How have we come to understand our predicament? Look around you: everywhere life forces wanting to get out, things unintentionally contained, baskets of energy. One of us believes we are like atoms with no centre; the one who likes clocks says we are lost time. Another believes we are poems, another thinks we are dreams meant to sort useless information, another thinks we are like sheets set out on the summer line, holding fists of air. We all believe we are Here. (55)
We learn that the narrators and Jane have developed a symbiotic relationship ever since she conjured their names, when she delved into the Victorian-era ledgers and diaries and books for her dissertation research. The author cleverly ties her narrative experiment to one of the epigraphs—“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them,” by George Eliot—bringing the words to life in a new and exciting way. Without Jane’s research, these Victorian ghosts cease to be.
This is why we’re here: because Jane thinks about us almost as much as she thinks about herself, because the distance between her life and ours is not as great as with others and because we are lost and Jane is the closest thing we’ve got to a map. And she is a good archivist, has a willingness to navigate history, to consider its blank pages. (33)
The ghosts see Jane as a hinge between the two worlds, or a door she dreams about, “what slips through, what goes missing.” (1) Jane moves seamlessly between time periods, and her search for answers propels the story forward. She takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of N, presumably as a proxy for coming to terms with her own loss of Lily. But history, as the narrators point out, shouldn’t be trusted:
Jane thinks it is a buffer, a static place that sits obediently between now and then—something she can pass through, the way people walk through the natural history hall or the upper galleries of the Chester Museum. But we know she is wrong, and we feel bad about that. History is shifty; it looks out for itself, moves when you least expect it. (33)
We follow Jane because the prose is quiet yet expansive, circuitous yet ever-deepening. And we can’t help but fall in love with her loneliness, stoicism, and dogged determination.
When she stumbles onto new details about the nineteenth-century characters, the identities of the narrators come into focus. All the while, Jane’s grasp on reality becomes blurrier, her future threatened. Adding weight to the main story are the compelling characters that make their home in the present day—a young admirer, a disdainful landlady, and Jane’s disapproving brother.
The author is careful to balance past and present. She braids the plot strings, pausing long enough in each scene to undo the knots and tangles. The result is more than 400 pages of moody, dreamlike prose that presents interesting juxtapositions of recollection and imagination, and the collisions of grief and nostalgia, all of which tug us deeper into both worlds before us.
Sarah Richards has published short stories in Room and UNBUILD walls and non-fiction articles in Lonely Planet and BBC.com. She serves on the PRISM International editorial board and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.
We’re excited to feature new poems by Aislinn Hunter in our Summer Issue 53.4. Bee sure to check them out! (Note: pun intended and no apologies will be made.)