Monday, 28 March 2016

The Ballroom


1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom, vast and beautiful.  For one bright evening every week, they come together and dance.  When John and Ella meet, it is a dance that will change two lives for ever.  Set over the heatwave summer of 1911 at the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Ballroom is a beautifully written novel following the lives of a small cast of characters during their days at an asylum on the Yorkshire Moors, where male and female patients are segregated other than once a week, when they are allowed to come together to dance. 

The story is centered around three main characters and is told in turn from their own perspectives: John Mulligan, a long-term patient; Ella Fay, a factory worker who finds herself admitted after a heat-induced outbutst at work; and Dr Fuller, a member of asylum staff.  All the characters are very compelling and have great depth to them.  John and Ella's love story was one of the most touching I have ever read and completely absorbing.  Anna Hope beautifully captured the desperation of their situation and their longing to be together.  Through their respective chapters we also learn a lot about asylum life, the tasks patients would be expected to do, their treatments, and other experiences they might have whilst living there.  Dr Fuller's chapters provide the historical backdrop as we are given an insight into attitudes towards mental health in the Edwardian era, and the eugenics movement.  As the novel progresses, Dr Fuller becomes a very different character to the one we are introduced to at the start, as we witness a change in his attitudes towards the feeble minded and what he believes is the best course of action.  The historical elements of the novel were really interesting and very well detailed.

Anna Hope's writing flows beautifully, and The Ballroom is a haunting, atmospheric book.  Both the asylum and the weather - as the novel is set during a heatwave summer - are so vividly described that they are almost like characters in themselves and the whole time I was reading I was easily able to imagine being there, experiencing asylum life along with the characters.

I was fascinated to learn that the novel was based on the true story of the author's grandfather and his time at the very real High Royd's Hospital in Yorkshire.  This was particularly interesting to me as the asylum is not very far from where I live, and I've often heard people mention it!  The first time in a long time that I've felt compelled to read even more about the subject of a novel, I was really interested to learn that the hospital, formerly West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, really did have a ballroom and dances really were held for the patients as described.  Anna Hope has taken this reality and expanded on it to create an unforgettable story.

Too long, didn't read?  Here's my Goodreads review:

The BallroomThe Ballroom by Anna Hope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beautiful love story set against a fascinating historical backdrop, in a very vivid and atmospheric setting. Completely absorbing.

View all my reviews

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