The World Before Us captured my attention from the very first page. The prose is exquisite, filled with lush adjectives and a poetic quality that feels melodic, which contrasts against the typically gritty mental asylum setting when the novel starts. However, this is not the stereotypical patient narrative – there are no abusive nurse or complex escape plots here. Instead, this is a novel about humanity and how remarkably similar our stories can be.
The novel follows Jane, a timid archivist at the Chester Museum. The Chester Museum is in the process of closing, and Jane and her colleagues are getting ready for the final event – a talk by botanist William Eliot. Jane is particularly anxious about this event, as she and William have a complex history unknown to the rest of the museum staff. As a teenager, Jane was a nanny to Williams young daughter, Lily. During a walk in the woods, Lily was lost and never found again. The incident haunts Jane, as well as her residual feelings for Lily’s father. Meeting William again pushes Jane back to the scene of the crime, which also happens to be the location of the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics.
It is here that multiple stories merge. Jane, as perhaps a distraction from her disastrous reunion with William Elliot, revisits a project began some years before – the history of the Whitmore, including the disappearance of a young girl known only by her first initial, N. Jane throws herself into the project, delving into the archives to solve the mystery of a missing Victorian girl. This, it seems, serves as atonement for her guilt about Lily. If Jane can discover what happened to N, she can open up another possible ending to Lily’s story – the chance that Lily survived her mysterious disappearance. Jane becomes the master of an intricately woven story where past and present intersect and where ghost have voices.
Within the first few pages, this novel feels familiar, solid, comfortable in your hands, with words that enliven and awaken the senses. The characters feel familiar, the imagery vivid, so that the reader is made to feel in the midst of a memory. The plot is slow, but with good reason. The story is less about forwarding the action and more about exploring the stories and inter-connectedness of seemingly separate moments in time. These moments all focus together around Jane, and come to life as she solves the mystery of N. It is a story that pulls at the heartstrings, and makes the reader think about the past with new eyes.