Anna Hope’s debut novel, Wake was a stand-out novel amongst many contenders who have written about the First World War and so it when I heard that The Ballroom was a book about mental illness, my fingers were firmly crossed that this would also receive insightful treatment – it does!
The Ballroom takes a look at three different characters, all whose home, temporary or otherwise is Sharston Asylum. We first meet Ella Fey, a young woman whose incarceration is following an incident at the mill where she worked and it is decided that she is suffering with ‘hysteria.’ John Mulligan, an Irishman who is suffering with melancholy, a man who thrives carrying out the hard work at Sharston where the physically capable male patients work in the fields, or as John does when we first meet him, digging graves. The other character lives in the staff barracks, Dr Charles Fuller a First Assistant Medical Officer who doubles up as Bandmaster for the weekly Friday dances where selected male and female patients meet for supervised association.
This is a well-researched book which takes a thoughtful look at the role of such asylums at the time that this book is set, in 1911. As much as the scenes at the beginning of the book are those that we are all familiar with, life in the asylum provided refuge for those simply unable to live in the community, in this instance that of the West Riding of Yorkshire. This was an asylum that catered for both men and women who were kept separated at all times unless they were deemed suitable to attend the weekly dance with a band made up from the hospital staff played from the stage and the patients hopefully lifted their spirits by dancing for a couple of hours. As is only to be expected though, given the subject matter, this tale is also an unbearably sad one at times.
In line with the subject matter Dr Charles Fuller is a man who is interested in Eugenics, a movement which was gaining popularity at this time and had many influential supporters. As the book starts he is keen on submitting a paper in support of segregation of the feeble minded but as the book continues obsessional thoughts take over and the line between sane and mad becomes ever more blurred. I will leave you to make up your own minds on which of the patients were best served by being committed to the asylum but it is clear that this wasn’t the answer at all for some of them.
The story is told by each of the three narrators; Ella, John and Charles each evocative in different ways and perfectly providing the reader with a picture of the summer of 1911 when the heat was unbroken, the fields filled with crops and the steamy and smelly laundry where Ella washed underwear and sheets, was damp and hot.
This is an outstanding novel, one that I’m sure achieved exactly what Wake did, which is to provide an unforgettable story at the same time as being highly informative. Anna Hope dedicated this book to her Great Great Grandfather who was admitted to Menston Asylum, which inspired The Ballroom, in 1909 and died there in 1918 which just made the story held within the pages, all the more poignant.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Random House UK who kindly allowed me to read a copy of this book. This review is my honest opinion of The Ballroom which is going to be published on 11 February 2016