I’m hugely indebted to Alison Barrow at Penguin Random House for an advanced reader copy of The Ballroom by Anna Hope in return for an honest review. The Ballroom will be released in hardback and ebook by Doubleday on 11th February 2016.
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 forever.
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a historical love story. It tells a page-turning tale of dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
My Review of The Ballroom
In the unlikely setting of the weekly dance in the ballroom at Sharston asylum, Ella and John meet and change the course of their lives.
Every so often there comes a book that touches your soul so deeply you know it will affect you for a very long time. Anna Hope’s The Ballroom is one of those books. Indeed, I can hardly bring myself to write a review as I don’t feel I have the vocabulary to express how it made me feel. My heart was genuinely thudding as I read and I felt a claustrophobia, desperation and hope that will remain with me for a very long time.
The narrative revolves around a few main characters; a doctor Charles and two patients Ella and John with a fourth, Clem, who acts as a catalyst for much of the action. Each is so wonderfully crafted that we see into their very hearts to the extent that I couldn’t bear what was happening to John and Ella in the first half of the novel, before the dancing began.
Disturbingly historically accurate, Anna Hope’s writing shows the brutality and harrowing actions of those supposedly caring for the mentally ill – or feeble-minded as they were known. The lack of humanity is astounding. Initially I felt Charles was as much a prisoner of circumstances as the patients and that his life echoed that of Ella and John far more than he would ever admit to himself so that I was sorry for him. Paradoxically though, as more of his nature and mental state was revealed and the more perhaps he deserved our sympathies, the less I liked him and empathised with him. He was a real person to me and I couldn’t bear him because of his effect on Clem, Ella and John.
Anna Hope so blurs the lines between madness and sanity that she shows just how arbitrary life can be. The plot devices are so intelligent, subtle and natural. Small touches such as the swallow feather, the reference to Lear’s ‘nothing becomes of nothing’, the intensity of the heat of 1911 all create a longing, loneliness and despair that resonate with and move the reader. However, at the centre of all the madness, the brutality and the desperation there is also love and hope – described with equal intensity and beautiful prose. I found the quality of Anna Hope’s writing reminded me of the best of D H Lawrence, particularly when she was describing nature and the underlying homosexuality of Charles.
As the plot progressed I hated being away from The Ballroom when real life encroached, and towards the end I was holding my breath. Frequently I found myself speaking aloud to the characters as if I was with them. This is powerful writing indeed.
The prose is absorbing, claustrophobic, moving and brilliant. I defy anyone reading The Ballroom not to be affected by the experience. It’s a book that is going to be difficult to beat for me this year.