“Part social commentary, part mystery and part dangerous liaison, this poignant story casts an unflinching gaze at the historic treatment of mental health disorders..”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
This book is set during the heatwave of 1911, in an asylum on the Yorkshire moors. It was a time when people were committed to asylums for the most minor of misdemeanours.
There are four main characters; John,who has suffered badly in his life; he is put to work digging graves for his fellow inmates, not knowing if one of them could be his own. Ella, who has been thrown into the asylum for no more than breaking a window in the mill, because she was desperate to see the sky; she has to work in a laundry sweatshop with no windows.
Clem, an educated, bookish girl who does not fit the mould and whose family saw fit to send her there as a private patient. Lastly there is Charles Fuller the doctor who tries to bring music into their lives.
At the centre of the inmates lives is the ballroom; a grand cathedral-like edifice at odds with the uncompromising bleakness of the rest of the asylum. In the ballroom a weekly dance is held. It is here that John and Ella meet and love blossoms. As the men and women are segregated it is virtually impossible for them to meet, and Clem becomes their means of communication.
This is a beautifully written novel setting the stark beauty of the Yorkshire moors, through the changing seasons, against the grim forbidding walls of the asylum. it shows the impossibly harsh treatment meted out by the people in charge, who, it could be said, had far more reason to be incarcerated than the most of the patients.
All the characters are beautifully drawn, but Dr Charles Fuller is possibly the most tragically complex character that I have ever read about. Even though he can walk out any time he is more imprisoned than any of the inmates.
The book highlights the horrendous conditions for working class people at the start of the 20th century – such a short time ago. The eugenics debate that plays a large role in the book feels like it should belong in the middle ages.
This is a novel about love, power, madness and survival; but despite the harrowing subject matter, it is an elegant, affecting book that has writing that is almost poetic. It will make you angry and upset but ultimately this book soars.
A must read.
Added 10th March 2016