"A remembrancer is a human being who knows that to be a human being is to carry within yourself a responsibility, not only to your own present but to the past from which you have come. A remembrancer is a kind of witness through memory."
Aislinn Hunter brings up the influence of literary critic Steiner's words in her acknowledgements at the close of her second novel, The World Before Us. They nicely summarize the central themes of her haunting new novel. Though falling into the category of contemporary literary fiction, the story is built on a foundation of genre: one-third historical, one-third mystery, and one-third gothic fantasy. The term "haunting" could describe the effect of these several facets of The World Before Us, from the affective quality of its prose, to the figurative intrusion or influence of the past upon the present, to the literal presence of the deceased gathered around people and objects.
A resident of Vancouver with an academic background that has taken her from British Columbia to Edinburgh, Hunter is an established author of essays, poetry, and fiction both in short and long form. The World Before Us from Hogarth marks her debut publication in the United States and follows her first novel, Stay, published in Canada and adapted into a 2013 film by Wiebke von Carolsfield (director of Marion Bridge), starring Taylor Schilling (of Orange is the New Black) and Aidan Quinn (of Legends of the Fall).
Thus, her previous work may not have put Hunter on speculative/fantastic fiction radars. But the plot of The World Before Us, a copy of which I received through The Crown Publishing Group's Blogging for Books program in exchange for this honest review, should nevertheless interest Strange Horizons readers, and particularly fans of magical realism.
Within the corridors of a small, present-day London museum that is dying from lack of funds, thirty-four-year-old archivist Jane Standen seeks solace in a final research project. She is investigating the mysterious disappearance from a Victorian-era mental institution, Whitmore, of a woman known to history only as "N." Though records mention the woman in a mere passing whisper, Jane feels compelled to uncover the truth of N's identity and ultimate fate.
Why does the mystery of N hold such importance to Jane? The woods stretching between the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics and the nearby Inglewood House estate mark not only the last known location of N, but also over a hundred years later of a young girl named Lily, who vanished in those same woods while under the supervision of a then fifteen-year-old Jane.
These two unsolved disappearances connect two pasts in intimate complexity with Jane's present life. Indeed, the coincidences pile up: William Eliot, the father of the missing girl Lily, has an academic interest in George Farrington, the Victorian-era Botanist who owned Inglewood House. And among the Farrington family, brother Norville had an influential friendship with collector Edmund Chester, who founded the museum where Jane now works.
Hunter reveals the details and nature of these time-spanning personal connections through an ambitious form of narrative perspective featuring a chorus of ghosts that observe Jane. Passages from the ghost's collective perspective segue seamlessly into third person narration from the point of view of Jane, or various individuals from the past. In this way, the spirits surrounding Jane follow her investigation, uncovering clues that help them remember key past events that illuminate who the specters once were and why they are drawn inexorably to Jane's life:
"So how do we begin? We begin with Jane—and not because she is here for us, but because we are also here for her, even though she does the work of conjuring us." (p. 350)
In the hope that some self-discovery will provide a closure that might allow them to move on, the ghosts watch Jane and relate her discoveries and their insights to the reader. This first person plural narration likewise reveals the personality of particular spirits, and along with them inklings of which past figures they may be. Hesitant to split apart the group, to leave Jane's side, or to physically intercede in the world, the ghosts stumble to create definition from the dim memory of history, personifying Jane's own struggle to face the uncertain future brought by the museum's imminent closure. The ghosts and Jane thus each try to envision an identity and purpose built from the context of the past:
This is our problem with time and its knots and bows: our impressions are muddled, and as Jane is sleeping we say, "The night sky was B minor," "My feet felt pink," "The music was punch," "The paneled room was a woods I felt home in."
Yes, we would like to remember exactly [. . .]
But there are only a few things we all agree on: that Leeson at one point noted the man he would later recognize as Farrington, that Farrington was watching the poet, and the poet—like us—was watching the ghostly figures of his invented world. (p. 181)
The touch of multiple hands of history in inventing identity and meaning is a theme that Hunter couples with the ultimate artifice or fragility of any such construction due to the unreliability of memory. As one character observes: "We all live in history [. . .] because it is history that shapes us" (p. 105).
This theme carries into Jane's profession as curator of the museum first begun by Edmund Chester through his interest in collecting objects, miscellaneous items that carry worlds of stories with them. Chester's outlook represents the romanticized ideals of history and memory, or of the quiet and atmospheric beauty of a museum:
He wanted, in those years, to do more than make sheets on looms; he wanted to capture the fantastic and strange, to live life in the zealous pursuit of knowledge. I did not collect to own, he wrote in one of last letters. I collected to create a discourse between the men of my day, and the larger world. "For it is not only people that constitute a society", he's said in one of his early Thursday evening lectures, "but also places and things, and this museum will explore the relationship between them. (pp. 57-58)
But, just as such relationships can be a source of discovery and elation, so too can they be manufactured and uncertain. For the ghosts, this issue comes into play once they begin to realize who they likely were in life. Even after reconstructing their past and realizing their identity, they find their nebulous predicament unchanged, and they wonder how much the past defines who they are now. Likewise, Jane's search for N and the relation of her disappearance to Jane's loss of Lily leaves Jane feeling just as uncertain, as if she is "outside of a world twitching with possibility" (p. 105).
Like French writer Patrick Modiano, Hunter is fascinated with the power of memory and the compulsion to capture truth from an uncertain past—to attempt to form a coherent narrative of the present. Both authors recognize the inherent fallacy of this process.
Sitting in the pub, Jane tries to line up her story the way we try to line up ours. There was a girl called N. There was a girl called Lily. One day Jane stood in a beautiful tract of woods and a five-year-old ran along a trail ahead of her and 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 in 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." (p. 292)
Ultimately, both Jane and the ghosts surrounding her seem to find a balance in—and acceptance of—an existence steeped both in history and construction, in a past established and that present moment "twitching with possibility". Though never explicitly stated, the novel clearly identifies one of the ghosts as Lily, recognizable by a poetic phrase that first comes up during a conversation with Jane while drawing, prior to Lily's vanishing. Despite the profound loss of identity for Lily's ghost, a simple phrase remains with her, a vague tie to a past of a kind that all the ghosts feel tugging upon them. As one of the "youngest" in the group, Lily finds it easier to escape the gravity of these memories, bringing a childlike acceptance to her newfound, ethereal existence. As time passes the ghosts, and eventually even Jane at their center, discover this openness to possibilities, unburdened from past trauma.
The focus of The World Before Us therefore doesn't lie in explaining the exact nature of ghosts, how they exist or what will become of them. It isn't even to provide an answer to the novel's main mystery, the fate of N (though it is given). These genre elements—like the historic, gothic atmospheres and settings of the novel—are the elegantly constructed platform for a compelling plot that delves into the deeper themes of history, memory, and identity.
Daniel Haeusser is a postdoctoral microbiologist studying bacterial cell division in the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at UT Houston. He reviews books of all kinds at Reading 1000 Lives or on Goodreads. He also writes for the American Society for Microbiology blog Small Things Considered, contributes book reviews to The Skiffy and Fanty Show and Atticus Review, and can be found on Facebook or Twitter.