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Virtual Book Club IX

This review, written by the Archivist, was recently published in the Bulletin of the Association of Canadian Archivists , and is reproduced here with permission. It is the last in our current series of Virtual Book Club posts.

I was disappointed when I finished reading Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us. Not disappointed in the novel, you understand – far from it – nor in the manner of its ending, which was exquisitely well-crafted and (for me) evocative of Joan Lindsay’s lyrical Picnic at Hanging Rock (or, for those who haven’t read the book, Peter Weir’s ethereal film of the same name). I was disappointed, rather, in the simple fact of its ending. You see, I wanted the anticipation of reading more of this luminous narrative to continue to stretch out before me. Why this was so requires some explanation on my part, since I am not in the habit of reading fiction, and comparatively few novels – apart from those which, like Picnic at Hanging Rock, I read as an impressionable teenager – have made any lasting mark on my imagination.

But before the explanation, an admission: for me (as an archivist with a perfectionist streak, responsible for Victorian mental health treatment records), The World Before Us (featuring Jane, an archivist of comparable fastidiousness with research interests in Victorian mental health records) has a kind of ‘anorak’ appeal. On the mental health side, I couldn’t help but wonder why the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics had a ward set aside for any, let along twenty, refractory patients; or how Drs Cerletti and Bini managed to wrest the credit for pioneering electroconvulsive therapy from a minor figure in Victorian medical history working a full fifty years before them.1 As far as the world of the archives profession is concerned, I was surprised to discover how much of Jane’s work responsibilities were actually those of a museum registrar; and upon being given sufficient information to calculate the respective years in which Jane and Gwen (a fellow archivist) completed their training – at the same archive school I attended, back in the day – I began to wonder exactly which tutors they were comparing notes about, and what it was about them that meant that “the ones Jane didn’t get on with, Gwen liked”.2 Lastly, the perfectionist in me quibbled over a few - but only a very few – possible transatlantic slips, what seemed to me to be wrong notes involving city blocks, therapists, publicists and the like. These too-close observations are, I confess, evidence of a ‘trainspotting’ desire to entirely inhabit the world of the author. If you have to ask about the enticement, you wouldn’t understand.

Yet this novel is not confined to narrow horizons such as these. Its canvas is as wide as humanity. It enters a plea against “presuming that people’s lives – even those of the Whitmore patients – are ever simple or small [and] that there is no traffic of the heart or transit between one kind of place and another”.3 The arc of its narrative – which I have no intention of giving away here, by the way – could be seen as a worked example of the truth of the very opposite. A concern for overlooked connections and complexity – “what slips through, what goes missing”4 – informs not only the story as a whole but also much of its incidental (or perhaps not so incidental) detail. A case in point: “when Jane read Herschel’s casebook she was able to see how his progress varied”, we are told (Herschel being a Victorian asylum patient).

One week there would be talk of his release, and the next there would be a threat of removal to one of the stricter asylums. He oscillated from improving to having fits to privileges returned within three hastily written lines. What Jane doesn’t understand is that this is only part of the story, gleaned as the hospital staff tracked patients over the course of a day or two and jotted down exaggerated acts or volatile aspects. The hours of selfhood between fits in the bath or dining hall rebellions went mostly unrecorded, and no one but Dr. Thorpe [the asylum superintendent] was tasked with asking ‘How do you feel?’ or ‘What are you thinking?’.5

In addressing this wider concern, The World Before Us reminds me of another novel – one of the few that have left an impression on me – which features an archivist as its principal character, and a pair of record-keeping institutions as its principal backdrop.

Like the Central Registry…the General Cemetery’s unwritten motto is All the Names, although it should be said that, in fact, these three words fit the Central Registry like a glove, because it is there that all the names are to be found, both those of the dead and those of the living, whilst the cemetery, given its role as ultimate destination and ultimate depository, has to content itself with the names of the dead.6

The themes of memory and control, individuation and oblivion which José Saramago articulated so memorably and well in his novel All the Names find echoing expression in The World Before Us, and nowhere more poignantly than in the voice's of its narrator's.

Names are the most valuable things. We have always said this…Names are pronouncements, entries, claims. Where things hold secrets…names state. They say, I was, I am.7

It might even be said that the engine of the drama is actually the gradual discovery of the identity, or identities, of the narrator/s. To say more about this, however, would be to break my promise not to spoil the plot.

In closing, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I was an accidental witness to one brief stage of the gestation of this novel, a fact which is generously acknowledged (over-generously, considering that I can claim no credit in respect of it) by the author within its pages, as well as within the virtual pages of a little e-book I wrote in 2012, Illustrious Company: Authors, Artists and Other Adventurers in Bethlem Royal Hospital . To be mentioned, not in dispatches but in footnotes, is the privilege of the archivist.