Mysteries abound in The World Before Us

Post image for Mysteries abound in The World Before Us

November 5, 2014

The World Before Us

By Aislinn Hunter

Published by Doubleday Canada

400 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Erin Anderson

The World Before Us, the second novel from Vancouver writer Aislinn Hunter, comes 12 years after her last fiction release, Stay. In between the two works, Hunter published The Possible Past, a collection of poetry which – in title at least – ties in best with the vision explored in The World Before Us.

Protagonist Jane seems to live in the past, cataloguing the antiques in the obscure museum where she works and wondering about the fate of the young girl, Lily, whom she lost while babysitting 20 years ago. She is also literally immersed in the past, unknowingly followed by a miasma of lost souls who believe her research will help them recover their own identities.

Jane’s personal and professional interests collide when Lily’s father is a scheduled guest speaker at the museum, which is being shut down. His visit acts as a catalyst and drives her to look deeper into the lives of several people who lived a century ago: a young woman who disappeared from an asylum, a man who founded his own eclectic museum and two competitive brothers from an upper-class family.

In clear, descriptive prose, Hunter lays out several possibilities for the lives under Jane’s microscope. Fictionalized versions of historical events emerge, extrapolated and inferred from Jane’s own discoveries and, later, from the memories pieced together by her cohort of ghosts.

The suspense in this ambitious novel sneaks up on its readers; what begins as a series of small unknowns coalesces into the larger mysteries at play. What happened to Lily? Who are the cloud of souls that surround Jane? Where did the young woman known as N. disappear to 100 years ago?

Hunter unravels these mysteries slowly and deliberately, examining the intricacies of the characters Jane knows only through letters, books and personal items, until even the smaller pieces of the past loom large. The World Before Us unfolds with the detachment and organization appropriate to a story with an archivist at its heart. Equally apropos is how the story shifts and switches focus as more evidence comes to light.

Though the historical events dominate readers’ imaginations, Jane proves to be an unpredictable yet thoroughly believable protagonist as she undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts. Forever marked by the loss of Lily, Jane has spent most of her adult life avoiding attachments. After her encounter with Lily’s father, she begins to break out of her passivity and engage not only with her own history, but the people around her.

The World Before Us is a subtle, evocative work that draws in its audience with ease. Even as Jane goes to great lengths to find answers to the questions that have bothered her for years, some mysteries can’t be solved. By threading Jane’s contemporary life through the lives of so many others, Hunter reminds readers that we are never really alone – we occupy the same space as those fallible humans who inhabited the world before us even as we face the world that lies ahead.

Erin Anderson is a marketing and communications professional who reviews books, music and theatre in her spare time.

Aislinn Hunter will read from The World Before Us at a gala event at Victoria Writers Festival on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., along with Jordan Abel, Nancy Lee and Darrell Dennis. The festival runs Nov. 6-8 at Oak Bay United Church. 

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: