From the moment I heard about Anna Hope’s second novel, The Ballroom, I couldn’t wait to read it. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911 it is a love story like no other, a story of a love that is hindered by the high walls and barred windows of Sharston Mental Asylum in Yorkshire.
‘She was no beauty, but a fierce, frightened girl.’
Our heroine Ella Fay is a young woman who has seemingly found herself incarcerated in an asylum for the mere act of breaking a window. This in itself is surprising to think of what behaviours were considered to be ‘mad’ just over a hundred years ago. Within the asylum walls Ella befriends Clemency, a bright, educated lady who finds comfort in her books. Together, the tough life of an asylum inhabitant is made better in each other’s company, but Ella longs to prove her sanity, to earn her freedom.
‘He could hardly think above the pandemonium of his heart’
The novel alternates between the stories of three main characters. As well as Ella we meet Irishman John Mulligan, another inhabitant of the asylum who is haunted by a past tragedy. There is then Charles Fuller, a doctor whose ideas and passion for music lead to the meeting which could change Ella and John’s lives forever. Charles’ idea is to hold a dance for the inmates. For one night a week, the men and women who are usually kept apart can come to the ballroom and dance together. It is here that Ella dances with John, and their love story begins.
‘Something small but wild. Something made for flight.’
From the start I was immediately immersed in John and Ella’s story, they are two people who found themselves in a difficult situation, one that they could save each other from. John in particular was an engaging character and I was intrigued to learn that the story was inspired by Hope’s own Irish great grandfather. I found The Ballroom to be a beautifully written, moving story. I particularly loved the use of language and the way that John and Ella learn to communicate, learn to love. Alongside this we also find out more about Charles, a man who has desires and obsessions all of his own which adds another layer to the story.
‘Being good was outside only. It didn’t matter about the inside. That was something they could never know.’
The Ballroom is in part a tale of love found in unlikely circumstances and the asylum setting introduces an interesting theme of madness and sanity. It is startling to think that some of the behaviours and attitudes in this novel were present only one hundred years ago. This is an interesting look at why people were incarcerated and how they were dealt with. It is upsetting to think about how our society once reacted to mental illness, how we used to treat the most vulnerable people in society. This made the story even more compelling as you willed for our protagonists to find the freedom and happiness they deserve.
I loved The Ballroom. It is a heartbreaking story of love, obsession and freedom. A sad, yet beautiful tale of hope and love, and a dark past.
The Ballroom is to be published on the 11th February 2016 by Doubleday. Many thanks to Alison Barrow for providing a proof copy for review.