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The World Before Us

by Aislinn Hunter

Hardcover, 354 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $26 |


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Aislinn Hunter

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NPR Summary

Working as an archivist in an under-funded London museum twenty years after a child left in her charge disappeared, Jane investigates a similar disappearance from more than a century earlier and discovers clues about an enigmatic community.

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Excerpt: The World Before Us

Where Noble, the hall porter, had gone off to remains a matter of debate. He was still on poor terms with the Superintendent for falling asleep on watch and for glomming about near the windows while the female patients were jarring preserves in the kitchen. The asylum logbook for the 2nd of August states only that the event occurred around noon and that Noble saw nothing. The patients, once they were let out for lunch, did not raise the alarm, although a few of them, Hopper in particular, refused to settle down on a blanket, which prevented the head count from being taken for some time.

The girl, according to Leeson's later statements to Dr. Thorpe, caught up with him and Herschel in a clearing in the woods — the three of them tromping wordlessly along a muddy path and besting a modest hill before they came upon a narrow carriage track that led to town.

These are the woods of Jane's dream and we are sometimes the figures who pass through them. We watch the dream unfold the way Jane watches a film, as if it were something we might try to press a finger against, try to pause, as if that would allow us to rest beside a nearby elm, to point down different pathways. The thing about Jane is that even though she often dreams about these woods, she gets only some of it right. This is the problem with imagination: it is prone to filling in gaps, takes what it knows from one set of experiences and sinks them into another to create some semblance of truth, bridge time.

In fact, Jane has been to that part of the country only twice, once when she was fifteen and William Eliot drove her up from London, and again when she was twenty-five and writing her MA dissertation on archival practices in rural nineteenth-century asylums. This is useful but it is not enough. When Jane imagines the north she thinks of the country freshness of the air — of honeysuckle and meadow grass — and of driving down the paved lane that led to the Whitmore, which was by then a shell of its former selves — asylum, hospital, school — empty and boarded up for decades. She doesn't think of legs not used to walking long distances or shoes that slip, bedbug bites, paths that dissipate into thistle or bodies scoured raw from the morning bath. She doesn't think of what it means to walk out of a door and know that you have changed the course of your life.

The door is the part of the story some of us like best. It was dull on the outside from years of weather; it was the colour of weak tea. You could run your fingers along the brace and over the stiles and not meet a splinter. It had a cast-iron
lock with a small mouth meant to swallow a skeleton key. Lean close and sometimes there was the sound of the wind chattering in its teeth. And it was usually reliable: kept people and things in their proper places, made a clop-clonk sound when the mechanism was released all those times Noble unlocked it.

You might wonder what a door knows of time. About as much as we do. We know doors are meant to be passive: people come and go, move through them, think nothing of the crossing, come out somewhere expected. It is different for us; for us time is knotted. A door can open in the flare of the imagination and a century can reel across the threshold. One minute we might be with Jane in her London flat, appliances humming in the kitchen, and the next we could be back in those woods, couch grass whisking our legs.

Yes, we know there are Wheres and Whens but we have lost much of the distinction. We do not always know "after" from "before," or either of those from "now." We do not know our own names, or the cities or towns we came from, the cottages or houses we called home. For us there is waiting and there is sleeping and there is the dull sense that we are doing both — sleepwalking down a long hall, waking in unexpected rooms.

This is why we need Jane. Her world is fixed, measurable: she turns on her laptop and there's a date in stern black type in the top right-hand corner of the screen; the pears she buys at the market, once composed in their bowl, convey the passage of time by the dwindling of their number and the mottling of their skin. We know that Herschel opened the Whitmore hospital door that afternoon in Yorkshire because Jane read that he did in Leeson's asylum casebook. We know from her copy of Dr. Thorpe's report to the Commissioners that Herschel's outdoor privileges had, a fortnight before, been revoked. We also know that there had been a month of rain — that the fountain was clogged with a thatch of green leaves shaken loose in a storm, that there were twenty small plots of earth waiting to be turned into gardens. And we know those woods. We know that on the 2nd of August, they carried the smell of wet must and the bright tang of decay. We know this because some of us were there.

Reprinted from THE WORLD BEFORE US. Copyright 2015 by Aislinn Hunter. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.