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Review: The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

The World Before Us

By Aislinn Hunter

Hogarth

354 pages, $26

By Karen Brady

Canadian author Aislinn Hunter blends history with remembrance – and, here and there, the truth – in her haunting new novel, “The World Before Us.”

Lush, lyrical and strange, this is a book of several stories (and three moments in time) that both reimagines the past and homes in on one Jane Standen, a London archivist who, at 34, is still coming to terms with a 19-year-old tragedy.

As if this isn’t enough, Jane is accompanied at all times by a bevy of unseen spirits able to enter her thoughts and dreams, a sort of bickering Greek chorus whose members narrate the novel. They are spirits that, for convenience, I will call “the invisibles.”

“How many ways to begin?” they posit at the book’s start. “Near infinite. Don’t ask us what we think, none of us agree on anything … Start with Jane … it’s where we always begin – crowded around her bed watching the clock blink toward morning … start with the door she is dreaming about – its slant and chance opening. Yes, the door: what slips through, what goes missing.”

Disappearance is at the heart of “The World Before Us” – first, the vanishing 19 years earlier of 5-year-old Lily Eliot, the daughter of well-known botanist William Eliot; second, the 1877 disappearance of a young woman known as N., in the same northern English countryside.

Jane is preoccupied with both – for she was in charge of little Lily when she slipped from sight, never to be seen again, and she is, as an archivist nearly two decades later, struck by the like-seeming disappearance of N. well over a century before.

“The World Before Us” starts with the earlier incident – the gleeful if shocking escape of two, possibly three, patients from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. Hospitality will be extended as the three absconders wander onto the grounds of the elegant Farrington House, home to George Farrington and his brother, Norvill. George Farrington (based by Hunter, with no apparent relevance, on Alfred Lord Tennyson) will see to the safe return of Charles Leeson and Herschel Morley. But the third in the escapees’ party?

Only the words “Patients C. Leeson, H. Morley and girl N -------- missing” appear in the hospital logbook for Aug. 1, 1877, along with a later entry: “Mstrs H. Morley and C. Leeson returned.”

N. is never referred to again.

One would think that only an individual with Jane’s past, and archival proclivities, could possibly be interested in clarifying these “facts” today – but Hunter brings them front and center in our own imaginations, as if to say we must let these people live again, lest they be forgotten. And in this she succeeds.

Herschel and Leeson, as they are called familiarly in the book, become as much a part of our own interior worlds as Jane and her suddenly-complicated, present-day existence: London’s Chester Museum, where she has worked for nearly a decade, is not only closing but is about to give an award to William Eliot, the vaunted author and botanical keeper at the Natural History Museum – as well as Lily’s father, a man Jane has not seen since the day Lily flitted away into the woods.

Jane’s “memory of what happened,” the invisibles tell us, “is always the same: she is half watching Lily, half peering up ahead for William; the game continues and Lily has missed a post, so Jane stops beside it and, after a minute, calls for Lily to come back around the bend …”

Jane’s personal world stops at this juncture, remaining 19 years in this self-same moment, “the worst part about not knowing … how the imagination fills in the blanks, how it tries to ferret out an answer from all the possibilities and how, in doing so, settles on the most terrifying. In that version, Lily is abducted. And sometimes she is murdered, and sometimes raped, and sometimes she is still alive and suffering …”

Mystery calls from every corner here, the invisibles missing nothing, telling us what they glean, what they surmise, how they would like it all to play out, while admitting limitation:

“Still, for those of us who want to make sense of things, there is constant learning. Time may have swept past us but we are caught up in its gusting … We do not know what will happen when the Chester closes. Ask us what shape certainty takes and we will all point to a different corner of the museum: to the pendulum of the long-case clock, to the black stones of the birds’ eyes, to the teacups in the upper gallery, to books, locks of hair, dress silk … We only know that we are drawn to certain objects, places and people, and we are bound to Jane like the Thale butterflies in the natural history hall – pinned to the boards in their long glass cases.”

Objects clearly fascinate Hunter and she does a yeoman’s job researching the holdings of Victorian museums, drawing new meaning from their old meanings and making us present for both. She has studied, too, asylums of Victorian times – and gives Jane’s MA dissertation the title “On archival practices in rural nineteenth-century asylums.”

If William Eliot – the man she had, at 15, idolized – was a botanist always about plants and almost never about people, Jane is far more often about people. And, as the invisibles inform us, “everything goes back to the woods …”

There are startling moments here – none of which I will reveal – but one sends Jane, in a flurry, from London back to the north country where both the Whitmore and the Farrington House stand abandoned, and where both Lily and N. disappeared.

There will be moments of awakening here, not only for Jane but for the invisibles, and we will realize – perhaps particularly when Jane takes up with a local youth 15 years her junior – that we are watching a butterfly emerge, slowly, and awkwardly, from a cocoon, seizing a bit of the young womanhood she had missed along the way.

“Jane tries to line up her story the way we try to line up ours,” the invisibles muse. “There was a girl called N. There was a girl called Lily. One day Jane … became transfixed with the way the sun flickered over the leaves at her feet, a box of light framed by the trees. And so she stopped and played at stepping into it. Because of that moment, she has put a bar of light into every story she has ever read or told. That is not accountability. It’s a way of trying to place one’s self in the world; it’s conjecture. Which is a way of saying, It’s a lie.”

Hunter, whose only other novel (the 2002 “Stay”) was made into a film starring Aidan Quinn, is also a poet and author of short stories who has made her home in recent years both in the U.K. and Canada. In a recent interview about her rich and rewarding new book, she said, “I put all of my best thoughts about the world into it.”

There is no better way to explain the charm, intrigue, erudition and sheer beauty of Hunter’s “The World Before Us.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist and frequent News book reviewer.