The world before us

Canadian writer Aislinn Hunter's novel The world before us is a fascinating work about memory, existence, and loss. Hunter's background is in art history. She studied at the University of Edinburgh for her PhD - a study in "resonance and beloved objects in Victorian writers' houses / museums". This directly informed her later novel.

The world before us tells the story of Jane Standen, an archivist in a museum in London (modelled something after Sir John Soane's Museum), packed with material collected by a Victorian couple, the industrialist, Edmund Chester, and his wife, Charlotte. The museum is full of memories, ghosts, and glimpses of its previous owners and their lives. Jane herself is haunted by an event that happened in a place that, coincidentally, links her to the Chesters. Many years before a child that Jane had been baby-sitting vanished while out on a walk. Jane has never forgiven herself for the loss of Lily. Her absence, and the failure to ever find any hint of what happened to the child has haunted her ever since. Old memories are suddenly thrust to the surface, when the museum loses its funding, Jane is forced to leave the job she loves, and unexpectedly meets up again with Lily's father. The confrontation forces Jane back to the place that she has avoided for many years, where the things she loves come into uneasy confrontation with the memories she would prefer to forget.

The novel itself is haunted as it moves between historic events around the time of the foundation of the museum, Jane's own memories and the ghosts that haunt her, and the ghosts that every archivist / librarian is familiar with - those who haunt the boxes of archives, longing to be remembered and brought back into the light; alongside these stand the ghosts of Lily's departure and the oddness of memory, the way in which even shared memories can be remembered very differently in each individual.

Hunter writes like a poet. Her prose is often very beautiful. I loved the juxtaposition of past, present and future; her ideas about the persistence of memory, and the way in which what was gone lives on in the memories and thoughts of others. It was hugely moving, and, as someone who deals a lot with the papers left from the lives of those long gone, it was an inspiring tale. As a piece of literary fiction, a ghost story, and a celebration of the joy of life, it worked beautifully. The only area in which, I think, it fell down was as a mystery.

Hunter's depiction of the loss of a small child was well done, but although true to life (sometimes there are no answers - it was a subject that featured on the news over the last few weeks with the death of Ian Brady, and no answer to the final resting place of his victim, Keith Bennett) it sat uneasily that there was no solution to the loss of Lily. And I found this difficult. This may, of course, have a lot to do with my own perceptions when reading - as a crime fiction lover, it's probably in my DNA to expect some sort of resolution, and in The world before us there is no resolution to some of the difficult issues that life puts before us. Sometimes we just have to accommodate our past, make peace with it, have it make peace with us, and move forward into The world before us.


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