“It doesn’t matter that memories can sometimes be misshapen, that there are a hundred ways to fix or lose a sense of self.” —The World Before Us, Aislinn Hunter
The World Before Us
by Aislinn Hunter
Random House of Canada Limited
September 9, 2014
432 pages, $29.95
I was enchanted by Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us, a gorgeous, complex story pulsing with life. The novel explores how time, memory, and imaginings can shape a person’s narrative and identity. The reader flutters in and out of the past alongside a whirlwind of characters —most of them spirits who have lost their selfhood.
Hunter’s greatest triumph when writing this book: her haunting, hypnotic first-person-plural point of view. At first, the reader is uncertain who the ‘we’ represents. The indeterminate gathering of narrating voices shadow 34-year-old Jane Standen. They follow her to work at the Chester Museum and gather round when she reads the archival files —clues to their pasts. The spirits know her thoughts, feel her emotions, and pervade her dreams. It takes but a heartbeat for them to travel through time and space. Still, they remain unknowing:
“We do not know how to recover our histories, to identify what or whom we loved. We cannot see ourselves except as loose human forms—like those caught moving down the street in the museum’s early Victorian photographs, figures whose blurred shapes become clearer the longer you look at them. We only know that we are drawn to certain objects, places and people, and that we are bound to Jane like the Thale butterflies in the natural history hall—pinned to the boards in their long glass cases.”
A Victorian era mystery haunts Jane. In August of 1877, three escapees fled the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. A broad-shouldered farmer, a warmhearted solicitor, and a young woman in a brown dress (known only as N-) traipsed together, for hours, in the forest. During their escape, N- disappeared. Jane cannot rest until she finds out what happened to the dark-haired woman on that late summer day.
The reader soon learns what drives Jane’s research: guilt. The story of N- parallels that of 5-year-old Lily, the charge Jane lost as a teenager in the same stretch of woods. Her own traumatic experience compels Jane to make things right —because “some poor girl from a Victorian asylum goes missing and makes a hole in a page just big enough for all of Lily to fit into.” As Jane’s sleuthing intensifies, so does the “we’s” awareness.
Hunter’s unconventional point of view may alienate some readers. Others will be entranced by it. Consumed by it. An intricate plot; poetic language; numerous characters: the book demands your full attention. Still, how rewarding it is to join the “we” as a remembrancer —“a human being who knows that to be a human being is to carry within yourself a responsibility, not only to your own present but to the past from which you have come.”
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*