After we are gone, all that’s left for the living are documents and photographs and memories—at least until the bearers of those memories pass on in their turn. Perhaps there’s a bit more documentation these days with everyone carrying around a phone with a camera and access to a social network or three. Archivist Jane Standen understands better than most that the evidence of a person’s life leaves large gaps in their stories. In Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us, Jane is unknowingly haunted by a crowd of ghosts who have forgotten who they are.
We meet Jane’s ghosts before we meet the woman herself. Her entourage of ghosts are our narrators. They attached themselves to Jane when she was 15, after a Jane lost the girl she was babysitting. The ghosts were, mostly, the inmates of the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescing Lunatics. Others are the inhabitants of the local village or servants at the nearby Farrington House. They can remember a few things—the feeling of corseted ribs, snatches of poetry and music, physics, rooms and sounds. They’re not sure why they’re still around. Hunter’s ghosts are not the usual sort looking for revenge or to say goodbye to loved ones one last time. What they want more than anything else is to know their names again and remember who they were. By following and watching Jane, who eventually becomes an archivists at a natural history museum, they hope that Jane can find them in the letters, hospital logbooks, and other documents that remain.
Most reviews of The World Before Us focus on Jane herself. They mention the babysitting tragedy and the fact that Jane seems to have spent the intervening nineteen years hiding. When she sees the father of the girl who was lost, Jane runs back to the scene of the crime. Curiously, she doesn’t search for Lily. She dives back into the local archives to try and solve an even older mystery. Her previous researches uncovered a curious incident from 1877. Three patients from Whitmore escaped and visited the local squire at Farrington. The two male patients returned after a cup of tea, but the girl who was with them N—, was never mentioned in the hospital records again. The case of N— haunts Jane as much as Lily.
The ghosts tell us about their discoveries while telling us about Jane’s archival investigations in a hypnotic fashion. As a librarian, I’m biased, but I think Hunter has a gift for writing about doing research in a way that captivates rather than bores. I wasn’t quite sure what Hunter was doing with her ghosts in The World Before Us, as it isn’t an overtly supernatural novel or magic realism. It wasn’t until I got to the author’s acknowledgements at the end of the book that the purpose of the ghosts was revealed. Hunter quotes George Steiner:
A remembrancer is a human being who knows that to be a human being is to carry within yourself a responsibility, no only to your own present but to the past from which you have come. A remembrancer is a kind of witness through memory. (Acknowledgements*)
Hunter says Steiner asked people to remember ten individuals listed on a memorial wall, “so that someone on this earth remembers” (Acknowledgements)
After reading these remarks from Steiner, The World Before Us took on a beautiful poignancy for me. Jane finds and the ghosts fill in the gaps in the documentary record. Secrets come out, but there is no judgment now that all the Victorians are gone. Even though the ghosts are, strictly speaking, dead, knowing their names and histories restores them to a kind of life. And, by investigating the past and trying to find someone who was considered lost for 140 years, Jane might be restored to a kind of life, too.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 31 March 2015.
* Quotes are from the advanced reader copy from Hogarth. Page numbers are not available.