Book of the Week

The Ballroom by Anna Hope. Photo: PA Photo/Doubleday

The Ballroom by Anna Hope. Photo: PA Photo/Doubleday

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The Ballroom by Anna Hope

An asylum on the Yorkshire Moors in the first decades of the twentieth century is the setting for Anna Hope’s magnificent second novel, The Ballroom, the follow-up to her impressive debut of last year, Wake.

Segregation, discipline and restraint are the order of the day for residents at Sharston Asylum. In the women’s building, newcomer Ella has to adjust to the strict confinement of daily life as she dreams of escape. But there are only three ways out: sanity, escape or death. Across the way, the men fare only slightly better, allowed outside to dig graves or work the land. But for John, it’s a respite from his past.

Only on Fridays do the two halves meet for a dance in the institution’s ballroom, led by second assistant medical office and chief bandsman, Dr Charles Fuller. A student of eugenics, he disapproves of the move towards sterilization of the working classes and infirm, seeing, instead, music as a way of betterment, and he hopes to prove his theory with one of his patients: John Mulligan.

Anna Hope has proven once again that she is a luminary in historical fiction. Writing history from the margins, the personal stories behind the era, she delivers profound, poignant narratives that stir the emotions. Taut from the outset, Hope’s narrative conjures the desperation and tension within the asylum as well as drawing three complicated and nuanced characters and weaving them together in a compelling and masterful way.

The love story is simply magnificent, but it is the backdrop to it all that is so fascinating. If you thought Anna Hope’s debut was good, this one is even better. And if you haven’t read either, you’re seriously missing out.