In one fleeting moment, fifteen-year-old Jane’s life changes forever. While on a walk through the woods of northern England with the girl she is babysitting, she loses her young charge. The child, Lucy, is never found, and that fateful day has a profound impact on the course of Jane’s life.
Twenty years later, Jane is working as an archivist at a small London museum that is about to close. For her final project, she is researching the disappearance of a woman, N, who vanished from the very same woods in 1877. After an uncomfortable encounter with Lucy’s father at the museum, Jane flees to Inglewood, the village near both disappearances, to immerse herself in her research while visiting two Victorian sites that are intricately tied to both events: the Whitmore insane asylum and gardened Inglewood House, which was owned by the founder of Jane’s museum.
Narrated by a ghostly chorus, the story flits back and forth between Jane’s search for answers and the lives of the 19th century people she is studying.
“She is a good archivist, has a willingness to navigate history, to consider its blank pages. But history is tricky. Jane thinks it is a buffer, a static place that sits obediently between now and then — something she can pass through, the way people walk through the natural history hall or the upper galleries of the Chester Museum. But we know she is wrong, and we feel bad about that. History is shifty; it looks out for itself, moves when you least expect it.”
Reader, I had such high hopes for this book. A Victorian insane asylum and two century-apart disappearances linked by a single location? Sign me up. The cover is gorgeous, and the synopsis holds the promise of a riveting, atmospheric read. Alas, The World Before Us novel fell pretty flat for me.
The writing is beautiful, but the novel is very slow to get going, and it never really picks up. The shifts in time felt a bit awkward, and when Jane finally discovers the truth about N’s disappearance, it felt anticlimactic. There were also a few too many loose ends when the novel concluded. I don’t need everything to be tied up with a neat little bow, but Hunter didn’t offer as much resolution as I really would have liked.
However, I did enjoy Hunter’s writing about museums and Jane’s work as an archivist. It’s not a path I have read about very often in fiction, but I would love to read more about characters who determinedly delve into the ephemera of the past to read between the lines, draw connections no one has made before, and discover tiny pieces of forgotten history. That aspect of the book was really lovely.
Overall, The World Before Us had a few aspects that I enjoyed, but it didn’t have the tension or momentum to really capture my imagination.
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