Wednesday 2 March 2016

Review ~ The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Random House UK, Transworld Publishers
February 11 2016

In the long hot summer of 1911, the inmates of Sharston Mental Asylum in Yorkshire swelter in the heat. A touch of breeze and a glimmer of sky are only possible for a few fortunate men who find release in the oblivion of hard manual labour, and yet, just sometimes, a glimpse of swallows in flight reminds them what it is to be human. The women, often subjected to repetitive and monotonous drudgery, have no such escape from the mundane of this desperate world. Closed doors and segregation mark this as a place of hopelessness, a place were neither love nor charity is allowed to flourish.

Doctor Charles Fuller, one of medical officers, struggling to find his own place in the world, uses his love of music to try to get into the psyche of the damaged souls in his care. A weekly dance held in the ornate ballroom is the only time that the men and women are allowed to come together, and in a macabre ritual, the social niceties, whilst not observed in the usual sense, allow the participants a small dream of pleasure. John, Ella and Clem are inmates, incarcerated in Sharston Asylum for very different reasons and yet, though lost, lonely, forgotten and hopelessly subjugated, they find that their lives are irretrievably tangled together.

There is no doubt that the author has done a commendable job in allowing this story to take flight, and by weaving together some factual information with compelling fiction, a strong story emerges. Her extensive research reveals not just the sensitive subject of mental illness in an age when incarceration was the only viable treatment, but it also exposes the shadowy and rather disturbing world of selective eugenics. The characters literally leap off the page and enter into your subconscious. They beguile and mesmerise, they make you both angry and sad and undoubtedly, they make you rant at the injustice of a system which created more far problems than it ever solved. 

By giving a voice to those hopelessly demoralised souls who spent their lives languishing in mental institutions for the simple offense of being different, Anna Hope has written a book of extraordinary compassion and overwhelming beauty.

Best Read with....thick slices of humble pie and restorative gulps of brandy...

About the Author

Anna Hope is a writer and actress. Her first novel, Wake was published, to great acclaim in 2014.

Twitter @Anna_Hope

End Note :

It’s fair to say that most major towns in the UK had a mental institution of some kind. They were those crumbling Victorian edifices, which stood like sentinels, guardians of terrible secrets which were too harrowing to recall. I remember as a child passing the red brick walls of a local asylum and my mother quietly telling me that that's where the sad people lived. And as a nurse working in Leeds in the 1980s, I am familiar with the psychiatric hospital, High Royds, in Menston, on which The Ballroom is based.

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Transworld Publishers for the opportunity to read this book.


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