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The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter.

December 10, 2014

The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter.  Hogarth (2015), Hardcover, 432 pages.


A complicated book about young British woman who is caught up in her own past and in events that happened more than a century earlier.


Aislinn Hunter has published in a variety of forms and venues; fiction, poetry, lyrical essays and academic articles. In addition to Fine Arts degrees from Canadian universities, she has studied “Writing and Cultural Politics” at the University of Edinburgh where she currently working on a Ph.D. in English Literature. Her academic articles reflect her interest in post-modernism, an interest reflected in The Worlds Before Us.


This novel centers on Jane, a single woman in her thirties who works as an archivist in a small museum in London. She is still haunted by the trauma she experienced over the disappearance of a child she was babysitting when she was 15. While a student, she researched records from the 1870s the manor house and the mental asylum near where the girl was lost. As her museum is closing due lack of funding, she returns to north England to explore what happened there in her own past and a century earlier, gradually making sense out of scattered clues and insights. In the process she begins to recreate herself.


The World Before Us moves back and forth in time and space and involves a large cast of characters. The most unique aspect of her writing is a cluster of undefined presences who provide some of narration of the book. Somehow dependent on Jane, they comment on present and past events as a collective “we.” They themselves do not know who they are or have been or why they see Jane as critical to their own survival. Like Jane, they gradually discover more about themselves as they explore the past, but much is never resolved.


Hunter’s writing is definitely clever, but for me it is too clever. Some readers and book critics will like this book, I am sure. To them, her postmodern attention to time, memory, and varying perspectives may seem sophisticated and contemporary. For me, this book, like too many other recent books, simply failed to draw me into the story.  All the shifting characters and plots left me unable to care about any of them. The second-person-plural narration contributed to the confusion. The book wasn’t difficult to read, but I kept thinking why bother.  I like books that are thought-provoking, but his book failed even that test.  Technique can’t replace good storytelling.


I read this book courtesy of Library Thing’s Early Reader program.



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