Yorkshire, England, 1911: After a moment of defiance at the factory where she has worked since she was a child, Ella Fay finds herself an unwilling patient at the Sharston Asylum. Ella knows she is not mad, but she might have to learn to play the game before she can make a true bid for freedom. John Mulligan is a chronic patient, frozen with grief since the death of his child, but when Ella runs towards him one morning in an attempt to escape the place where he has found refuge, everything changes. It is in the ornate ballroom at the centre of the asylum, where the male and female patients are allowed to gather every Friday evening to dance, that Ella and John begin a tentative, secret correspondence that will have shattering consequences, as love and the possibility of redemption are set against one ambitious doctor’s eagerness to make his mark in the burgeoning field of eugenics, at all costs.
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, at a time when England was at the point of revolt, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
Asylums are scary, and they get more frightening the further back in history you go. What’s this, you broke a window in a fit of pique? Must be mentally ill, off to the asylum you go. Depressed after losing a loved one? The asylum will fix you up. Not listening to the men in your life and reading too many novels? You’re headed to the asylum too, lady.
As Charles read, he felt the pleasurable sensation of pieces of a puzzle slotting into place. So the neuropathic taint had passed down the female line, the mother the transmitter of infection.
It makes you shiver.
I can’t quite make up my mind about this book, though. I mean, it’s good. Very good. The writing is wonderful, it’s plotted well, and the characters are deep and nuanced. I believe their inner lives. The point of view rotates among Ella, John, and Charles, and each has a different feel despite being told in the third person. The switch between one section and the next isn’t jarring, and I never thought “go back to her!” or “not him again”. That’s hard to do, so major props to Hope.
While most of the book takes place at the asylum it only feels as claustrophobic as it needs to. You know when the patients are under a less watchful eye and can breathe a little easier, yourself.
The ending though… I can’t say I like it. It’s not the romantic happy ending, which is fine. And it does have closure to it. But in spite of that it left me unsettled and unsatisfied. It also had me thinking, what was the point? Which may be the point after all. Check out this line from midway through the novel:
She stared at the book in her hands. “When I go to university,” she said, “if I write an essay about it, then I’ll talk about the ending. How I want it to be different. But how it’s still the right ending after all.”
I reread this quote after finishing and thought “well-played, author, well played”. I’m still not happy or satisfied, but I guess Hope didn’t want me to feel happy or satisfied, so…
All that being said I still give the book four stars. The writing, atmosphere, characterization, and plot come together for an engrossing read, especially in the second half. When you read it come back and tell me what you think about that ending because I’ll still be agonizing, I’m sure. But that’s a sign of a good book in and of itself, right?
Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for providing a review copy.