Ella and John are both patients at the Sharston mental institution, neither of them ‘mad’ or ‘feeble-minded’. Just bad luck, really, has landed them there, at a time when bad luck or being born into the wrong circumstances is all you need to get yourself institutionalized. They fall in love during the Friday evening Ballroom dances, which brings hope back into their lives. Their love story is somewhat predictable, as many love stories are, but played out against the backdrop of an asylum in the early 1900s adds tension and interest.
John sat himself in the corner and took small, shallow breaths, trying not to let it in; it was a terrible dangerous contagion, hope.
I like the fact that Ella can’t read. Often, in historical fiction, we are reading about female characters who are educated, against the norm, and we admire them. But I’m sure there were many smart, strong women who didn’t have the opportunity to educate themselves or learn to read, and I appreciate the chance to read about, and admire, them as well.
Ella knew about being good. Had known it since she was small. Being good was surviving. It was watching while your mother was beaten and staying quiet so you wouldn’t be next. Feeling sick because you were a coward and didn’t do more. Taking the blows once she had gone and never crying, or showing how much they hurt. Tucking in your plaits, shutting up and working hard. Day after day after day.
Clem, Ella’s friend, adds more depth to the story. The doctors have a hard time figuring her out, but the readers are eventually let in on her story; how she came to be at the asylum and why she is not keen to be let out, despite the fact that she comes from a good family who seem to be very concerned about her progress.
Charles is the character that I found most interesting. He joined on as one of the medical advisors at the asylum as a young man full of self-importance and the desire to show everyone how great he is. He becomes interested in Eugenics and, although he starts out optimistic about proving that pauperism is not hereditary, he eventually comes to believe sterilization is a good option for weeding out the ‘bad apples’.
Charles becomes obsessed with getting Winston Churchill’s approval; he writes letters and dreams about a day when Churchill will come to the asylum and pat him on the back for all his good work. But the other interesting (and sad) thing about Charles is that he seems to be terrified of himself. He finds himself attracted to a man at the music store and it terrifies him, consumes him, and along with his obsession with greatness, he feels overwhelmed – showing the fine line between the people who have found themselves inside the asylum and the ones who are smugly on the outside.
“When men at the bottom have their souls leave them, they end up in here. But when men at the top do, they end up dangerous.”
Ultimately this novel is about the importance of human connection for hope, happiness and survival in a world that can be dismal and cruel.
How the beauty of life and the world struck him like a fever sometimes, but how it was all mixed up and mangled with the hate.
As for the ending… there is something to be said for modern technology.
*Thank you to Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of this book for review!
My review of Wake, which I also loved.