I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
The more historical fiction I read, the more I love the genre. To read such enchanting, atmospheric stories which feel so removed from my own life and then to realise how much they are ingrained with truth is enlightening. The Ballroom is a great example of this genre at its best – a heartfelt story, beautifully written with complex, well-drawn characters and a fascinating historical backdrop. I couldn’t ask for much more from a book.
Told from three alternating viewpoints – Ella, John and Charles – The Ballroom reads as three intricately drawn character studies, bound together by Sharlton Asylum where the characters are residing – a place so vividly imagined it almost feels like a fourth character in its own right.
Ella is the first character we are introduced to. Having worked in a factory since she was eight years old, one day she decides she’s had enough and throws a piece of machinery out of the window. She finds herself in Sharlston Asylum; transferred from one form of mental captivity to another.
John’s backstory isn’t revealed until a little later into the story, but he’s a long-term ‘chronic’ patient of the asylum, with a tragic past and a future which looks bleak; it doesn’t seem like he will ever leave the confines of the asylum.
Charles – a failed doctor with a passion for music – works on the asylum staff. Combining his media knowledge and love for music, we meet him when he’s on the cusp of embarking on some experimental research into musical therapy.
Then there’s the asylum itself; “this island-ship of souls, cast away on the green-brown seas of the moor” which the characters call home is beautifully imagined. At its core is a vast ballroom, where the men and women of the asylum are allowed to come together once a week and dance to the music played by Charles’s band.
The love story in this book is beautiful; the tender love letters delivered under the lights of the decadent ballroom offers pure, unadulterated romance. But this story is so much more than that. Through her characters, Anna Hope offers a thought-provoking look at mental health facilities and practices during the early 1900s, and some of it is truly shocking. It’s clear from many of the chapters from Charles’s viewpoint that mental health is not thoroughly understood, and a far cry from the more sensitive, restorative stance taken today. It makes for a dark story, but one which is ultimately imbued with hope.
“Whatever had occurred, the future was coming. And whatever had occurred, Charles knew, this future was clean, unsullied and ready to be carved.”
What makes this book all the more special is its basis in reality – the author dedicates the novel to her great-great-grandfather, the namesake of one of her main characters, who spent time time the asylum upon which this novel is based during the early 1900s. The lavish ballroom at the heart of the Yorkshire asylum really existed too, and the author weaves an absolutely stunning story around it.