Some authors seem to have a natural home – a place or an era perhaps – which seems to suit them best. Nobody could deny, for example, that Terry Pratchett was a true son of the Discworld, or that J.K. Rowling knows Hogwarts better, perhaps, than she know our humdrum, everyday world. Although maybe these are poor examples – Good Omens is my favourite Pratchett novel (I just loved what they did with the M25…) and I was deeply moved and angered by the realism of Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy (book more than tv adaptation…). Anyway, what I mean to say is that it shows when an author is writing about a time or place which they really know well. When, for example, they have done such great research into a period that they write about it as if they are living it.
Anna Hope’s first novel, Wake, was one of the very many published in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. I read a few of them, and a couple of the classics of the genre, but I have to say Anna’s book stood out for me. The setting, just after the end of the war, and the main characters, women affected by either the loss or return of the fighting men, made it just that little bit different. The Ballroom is set just a few years before the war, in 1911, but Anna’s research for the whole period – when stiff Victorian values were giving way to a more modern era – is obviously put to great use once again.
The setting is an asylum near Ilkley Moor – based on the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Menston. This fascinating building and its past will be familiar to many in the Bradford district from the books of local photographer Mark Davis – in fact these are mentioned in the author’s note at the end of the novel – and this story creates very plausible lives for the inmates and staff. At one level we have a love story: that of Ella and John, who meet each week at dances held in the asylum’s ballroom, held as an experiment in treating the inmates via music. On the other hand we also have an exposure of the lives of the poor in the last days before the war – an era when anger, kicking against the pricks of work in a noisy, dirty and dangerous factory, or depression, brought on by the death of a beloved child and increased by betrayal, poverty and destitution, could lead to incarceration and dehumanisation.
There is, obviously, a darker side to the story. As if the detention of men and women for what would, today, be considered everyday mental health issues is not bleak enough the practice of eugenics rears its ugly head. This was a practice which had many serious followers in the early part of the twentieth century – rather chillingly the main approach as shown in this book is to demonise those among the poor who are considered undeserving, ungrateful or unruly. Charles, the young doctor at the asylum who advocates eugenics is as well drawn as John and Ella. To my view he seems to show less humanity, less sanity, than most of the inmates. Add in some fascinating secondary characters, tragic Clem and the irrepressible Dan, and I was gripped from beginning to end.
I know I am making this sound like a rather depressing story but it really isn’t. Ella and John are so alive, their feelings for each other so tender, that they could redeem any amount of bleakness. Maybe, like the moors themselves, this book has the perfect blend of the bleak and the beautiful.