Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a simple wish to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute. There are other ‘residents’ who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today’s standards (Ella’s friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior. Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance. A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance. Ella and John’s meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt. Their story isn’t melodramatic. It’s gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.
I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters. The way that they grow and change subtly until they’re someone different entirely. Alongside Ella and John’s narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer. Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn’t the way to prevent the “spread” of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental ‘deficiency’ are quite capable of productivity. Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era. Gradual and utterly believable.
The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates a frazzled atmosphere. There’s an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate. Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard I was actually hurting my hands and just willing both the characters I loved and those I hated to get the endings they deserved. I closed the novel in tears. Admittedly, that’s not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.
Date finished: 18 December 2015
Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader’s Copy)
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday