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
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 tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
The Ballroom is published by Doubleday (Transworld) on 11 February 2016, and is Anna Hope's second novel. Her first novel, Wake, was published in January 2014. I reviewed it on Random Things and I adore it, I chose it as one of my Top Reads of 2014.
There are some books that appear, at first glance of the blurb, to be one thing, and then, when you start to read, and read and read, you discover layers and layers of different stories, told from different points of view and dealing with so many complex and emotional issues. The Ballroom is one of those books. It is a story of innocent love. It is also story of horror and obsession and insanity and power.
Set in an asylum on the edge of the desolate Yorkshire moors during a heatwave, the sense of place and time is overwhelming, there is a humid, almost oppressive feel to the writing that seeps into the brain whilst reading, and adds a depth to the characters and the setting, and the whole plot.
Anna Hope has based her story on that of her Irish great-grandfather, and she writes with compassion and conviction. Her characters are perfectly created; the lead figures of John and Ella are wonderful. Strong, Irish John who has suffered loss and tragedy and young Ella, the victim of a violent father and incarcerated after breaking a pane of glass. Appearing alongside these two, the other patients in the asylum including cultured, out of place, bookish Clem, and the assortment of staff members, from the unbalanced and on-the-edge Doctor Fuller to the sadistic, patient-turned-guard Brandt.
The Ballroom charts John and Ella's love story, their attraction begins at the weekly dance that takes place in a beautiful ballroom that is so out of place in this stone walled asylum that is so bleak and dour everywhere else. The dance is a ray of light and hope that breaks up the hard work of the rest of the week. John spends most days digging graves for the patients who have lived most of their lives behind these walls and will spend their eternity within the grounds. Ella washes dirty laundry and scrubs, day in and day out. Doctor Fuller believes that music is a therapy, and may help his patients, even though he also believes the poor, uneducated, lower classes are responsible for all insanity, and that this could only be prevented through segregation or sterilization.
Anna Hope's writing is powerful and touching. Her story is distressing at times, yet it is so very important, and most of all, it is beautiful and affecting. To deal with so many serious issues whilst keeping a simple and joyous love story at its heart is surely the sign of a brilliant author.
I have been carrying John and Ella's story around in my head for the last twenty-four hours, it whispers and lingers and has made a huge impression.
The Ballroom is exquisite, unusual, horrifying and quite quite beautiful.
My thanks to the publisher who provided my copy for review.
Anna Hope was born in Manchester and educated at Oxford University and RADA.
She is the author of the acclaimed debut Wake.
The Ballroom is her second novel and is inspired by the true story of her great-grandfather.
Follow her on Twitter @Anna_Hope