“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Burnt Norton.” Aislinn Hunter’s intricately composed and gripping sophomore novel brings Eliot’s words sharply to mind. In The World Before Us, past and present are deeply entwined.
The use of the word “before” in the title embodies the novel’s themes. An auto-antonym, or Janus word, “before” contains dual, antithetical meanings: ahead and in the past. This is a tale in which time moves fluidly between the world that came before us and the world that lies before us, in the future, buffeted by the ebb and flow of imagination and memory.
The story focuses on two central mysteries. The first involves five-year-old Lily, who vanishes in the countryside near London, England, when Jane, then 15, is minding her. The second mystery has its genesis some 125 years earlier, when a young woman disappears from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics in the same stretch of woods.
The narrative alternates between Jane’s adult life in contemporary London, where she is an archivist at the Chester Museum, and the world of the Victorian asylum, where a woman known simply as “N” had been a patient. Jane is involved in researching the asylum’s history, seeking clues about N’s escape and what became of her. The mystery surrounding N’s disappearance has obvious echoes with Lily’s story, which Jane considers “the defining before and after of her life,” an event that has both scarred and shaped her. A gifted archivist, Jane longs to navigate history, but “history is tricky,” not “a static place that sits obediently between now and then.”
Momentum builds as these stories converge, piece by piece, bound together by numerous parallels and commonalities. The location of both Lily and N’s disappearances is the same, and the museum owns artifacts rescued from the asylum. One such disturbing object is an elegant mahogany box, which an inmate once mistook for a selection of teas. The box actually contains equipment that was used in electroshock therapy.
The novel’s characters are deeply imagined and multi-layered, and brought to life through potent scenes and fresh images. While Jane is cataloguing an antique tea set, one of the museum’s most valuable pieces, she shatters a teacup. Gazing at the four useless shards in her palm, she thinks about all the clumsy maids and children, the multiple washings, the tea set being packed up and carted across the country dozens of times: “A delicate slip of a teacup that has survived all this … has not
One of the novel’s most powerful moments comes when Jane confronts William Eliot, Lily’s father. William had accompanied Jane and his daughter on their woodsy ramble on the day the girl disappeared. Years later, William wins the museum’s prize for his book, The Lost Gardens of England. The gala honouring William marks the first time Jane has seen him since the events surrounding Lily’s vanishing; here, past and present collide in a startling climax.
The most distinctive element of The World Before Us is voice: to tell her story, Hunter chooses the risky and unexpected first-person-plural point of view. The use of “we” threaded throughout the story stitches past and present into a single fabric, while maintaining a haunting, mysterious tone. Gradually, the reader comes to understand that the nebulous “we” comprises the ghosts of asylum inmates. Their commingled voices play upon our emotions and senses, in much the same way as dreams or nightmares:
How, you might ask, do we see ourselves…. Look around you: everywhere life forces wanting to get out, things unintentionally contained, baskets of energy. One of us believes we are like atoms with no centre; the one who likes clocks says we are lost time. Another believes we are poems, another thinks we are dreams … another thinks we are like sheets set out on the summer line, holding fists of air. We all believe we are Here.
At times, this chorus interrupts the flow and suspense of the story, as readers struggle to puzzle out the nature of the narration. Moreover, those with limited patience for things spiritual might become irritated by this approach. For this reader, though, the startling narrative point of view deepens the story, and even adds odd flashes of humour.
Hunter, author of poetry, non-fiction, and the 2002 novel Stay, is a versatile writer, and with The World Before Us, she has created her most ambitious and original work, one that demands the deep, concentrated focus of its readers. “After all,” the novel reminds us, “every presence has a kind of weight, something felt: moods and shifts and feelings, a steady pulse of being.”