Saturday 24 September 2016

Books: A touching tale of love against the odds

The Ballroom, By Anna Hope, Doubleday, €17.99

Claire Coughlan

Published 01/02/2016 | 02:30

Anna Hope's debut Wake was an interesting addition to the slew of World War I novels published to mark the war's centenary two years ago.

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Inspired by Hope's research into the Suffragette movement, it was a deft exploration of the devastating aftermath of the First World War - in particular, the many women who had been left bereaved in its wake. The Ballroom, Hope's second novel, is even better. This is fiction at its finest - a book you can read in one sitting, in which the reader is utterly transported to another time and place, within the bounds of a very skilled author's imagination.

The time is during the long heatwave of 1911, and the place is Sharston Asylum, a pioneering refuge for the chronically mentally ill - and those deemed to be so by dint of tragedy and destitution.

Sharston is self-sufficient, with all labour supplied by the patients. It is situated on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, a location that is already prominent in the literary imagination, placing on the novel a heavy weight of readerly expectation.

Such a magnificent setting definitely demands a story which delivers, all guns blazing. It does so, and then some.

At Sharston Asylum, men and women are segregated by high walls and barred windows, but in the middle of all this sits the ballroom of the title, ornate and majestic, where the patients come together once a week on Friday evenings to dance under the instruction of the obsessive and repressed young doctor, Charles Fuller.

The slightly twee title of the novel belies the singular intensity and power of the language. This makes for an unforgettable reading experience, totally deserving of its dramatic setting.

The author has said that The Ballroom was inspired by the true story of her Irish great-grandfather, which lends a poigancy to the telling.

Ella Fay and John Mulligan are patients of Sharston, each housed at opposite wards in the institution.

Ella was sent to Sharston by the police after she broke a window at the mill where she worked since she was eight years old. John, an Irish labourer, has already been there two years by the time of the novel's beginning, his life having been blighted by tragedy and disappointment.

When Ella and John meet in the asylum's ballroom, neither expects to find the redemption each has been looking for and the story that unfolds is a very touching one; the depth of the characters is superb.

John and Ella write each other letters, which they pass to each other each week at the ballroom where they are allowed their only contact. Meanwhile, Dr Fuller has his own plans for them...

The novel is narrated from three points of view - those of Ella, John and Dr Fuller.

Living and working at Sharston, the doctor is hiding himself away from the world, locked in his own private asylum of denial until everything implodes around him. His increasing obsession with crackpot theories of fearmongering eugenics is highly ironic - considering that it is he who gets to differentiate between madness and insanity.

The Ballroom starts out slowly, almost tentatively, but then it gathers pace, gradually gaining momentum until it builds and builds into a devastating crescendo that will be guaranteed to move even the most hardened cynic.

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