[I received a copy of this book from its Canadian publisher Random House Canada. This does not affect my opinion of the novel.]
To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin my review of this book. The World Before Us immediately captured my attention with its opening scene and just kept getting more and more interesting as the book progressed. While, looking back, I wish we could have gotten more of an answer when it comes to a certain part, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who fits in the “read if” category below.
The book starts with a mysterious “we” arguing on how to start the novel. With “near infinite” ways to begin, they are having trouble settling on one particular way. They eventually decide to start with Jane, “because our stories are tied to hers and everything depends on what she does with them” (1*). The narrators then take the reader head first to a day in 1877, where three patients – two men and one woman – escaped from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. The trio, undetected by the hospital’s attendants, walked into the woods near the hospital that afternoon but only the men returned. The book’s protagonist Jane, an archivist in a London museum that is about to be shut down, has spent countless hours investigating what happened, hoping to find out where the woman, known as N-, went. While it seems natural that an archivist would be interested in disappearing persons from the past, Jane’s fascination with the missing N- stems from a personal experience: when she was fifteen, Jane was babysitting a five year-old girl in the very same woods when the girl she was minding seemingly disappeared into thin air. The police were never able to find her and this has haunted Jane’s life ever since. Will Jane, now in her thirties, find a connection between the two lost girls through her research? Will she ever find out what happened to them in the woods and gain closure? Who are the mysterious narrators of the novel and what role do they play in Jane’s life?
The first thing I have to say about The World Before Us is how beautiful its writing is. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually one to tab my books, but my copy is now filled with sticky flags as I couldn’t help but mark down my favourite passages. In Hunter’s words, blood on a shirt is described as “an impossible red flower” (327); a rug is not just a rug, it has a “border of green leaves and butter-coloured flowers” (175)… the attention to detail and masterful wording makes The World Before Us a piece of literature worth reading based on its language alone.
That being said, The World Before Us doesn’t just rely on its wonderful writing. On top of being quietly poetic and evocative, the novel touches on everything that interests me as a reader: the Victorian era, memory, history, identity, and dreams. Here’s a particularly beautiful observation about memory and history:
“Memory being what it is, we sometimes remember backwards, or sideways, or inside out. …Applause spilling out from an audience might equal heartache; a leaflet for the Fancy Fair might put the taste of toffee in our mouths. History is never perfectly framed, although the photographs in the museum may suggest otherwise.” (198)
Insightful thoughts like these are scattered throughout the novel and together they set the book apart from other plot-driven novels that I’ve read. I will reiterate my earlier point in thinking that the book isn’t 100% perfect, but overall I would still rate it a 5-star read. (In fact, writing this review just made me want to re-read this book right now…)
Verdict: A strong book that is plot-driven but injects some wonderful writing and sentiments into the mix. I am a huge fan of this book and I’m glad I had a chance to read it!
Read if: You’re as fascinated with the Victorian era as I am, love beautifully-written prose, want to immerse yourself in a world that is like our own but is just strange enough to feel other-worldly.
Are you a fan of the Victorian era? Why do you think novels about missing people are so popular?
*All pages quoted in this review are from the advanced reader’s copy and may be different from the finished book.