The Ballroom – Anna Hope

She’d heard of it. Since she was small. If you ever did anything stupid: the asylum. For the lunatics. The paupers.

They’ll send you to Sharston, and you’ll never come out.


1911. Ella and John are patients at a mental asylum on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors. The morning after Ella’s incarceration she’s taken to see Doctor Fuller to be formally admitted.

‘It says here, Miss Fay, that yesterday morning you attempted to damage a machine in the factory in which you are employed.’ The doctor was looking at her again, a keenness to him now.
‘I’m not mad.’
‘Do you deny you did this?’
How to explain? How to speak of what she had seen – of the women and the machines and the windows that had blocked everything out. It had been so clear then but would be muddy before this man, she knew.

Before her initial assessment is complete, Ella makes a run for it, out of the unlocked front door and down the hill. She almost makes it to the lane but slips in the mud in front of two men digging a hole. Those men are Dan and John.

Dan was a sailor for twenty years. Full of tales about Norah Carney – possibly a legend – and songs of the sea, after two years John still doesn’t know why Dan’s in the asylum.

John’s an inmate because circumstances left him destitute. He turned up at the asylum after several weeks living outside.


John and Ella’s stories progress in parallel – her slow realisation that she has no choice other than to submit to the system, making friends with a woman called Clem and working in the laundry; him continuing to dig holes, dealing with taunts about his nationality (Irish) and coming under scrutiny from the doctor – until a fortnight has passed and they meet again in the ballroom of the asylum on a Friday evening where the patients are taken and allowed to dance.

And, then, sitting at the dead centre of the asylum, forming, in so many ways, Charles had come to feel, its heart, something entirely unexpected: an immense ballroom, a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, with a stage at one end.

Fine stained glass was set in the sixteen high, arched windows. Birds and brambles painted upon it. Summer light pooled upon the sprung wooden dance floor. Above, an arcaded gallery stretched the length of the room, the ceiling gently curved, was panelled with gold.

Charles, Doctor Fuller, is the third voice in the story. After scraping through his medical degree, bored of lectures he’d skipped to do music practice or attend concerts at Wigmore Hall, he’d applied for a job at the asylum rather than follow his father’s rigid instructions as to how he’d spend his days in order to retake his examinations and excel. When the novel begins, he’s lived in his tiny room within the asylum walls and tended to the patients for five years.

When he sees a call for papers for the First International Eugenics Congress, he goes against the superintendent and decides to write on the benefits of music and segregation, believing this might be ‘A chance, perhaps, to take his place in the pantheon of superior men’.

What’s really impressive about The Ballroom is Hope’s characterisation of her three protagonists and Clem, Ella’s friend. She creates characters so fully rounded, so utterly believable and in doing so makes you question who should be incarcerated and who should be free. Of course, by doing so through a young, poor woman, a destitute Irish man, a young, educated private patient and a middle class doctor with secrets of his own, Hope incorporates questions of class, circumstance, power and chance. It’s very difficult to read this novel and not see her themes and ideas echoed in today’s political rhetoric on those living in poverty.

There are some very dark moments in this novel – the climax continues to haunt me over a month later – but this is balanced by the developing relationship between Ella and John, the moments in the ballroom and the landscape, the Yorkshire moors almost a character in its own right, providing a taste of fresh air amidst the claustrophobia of the asylum.

The Ballroom is a beautiful, gripping, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking book. I was so enthralled, I read it in an evening, unwilling to put it down. Following Hope’s impressive debut, Wake, it marks her out as one of our best contemporary novelists.


Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Books of the Year 2014 (Part 2)

As promised yesterday when I posted my Books of the Year (Part One) – those published pre-2014, here’s part two with those published this year.

There are two things I dislike about doing this sort of post; the first is I’m very aware of the books that people I trust rate highly and I haven’t got to yet – Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation; Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows; Ali Smith’s How to be both, and Suri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World are all high on my TBR. And then there are the books I really enjoyed but didn’t quite make the cut because I want to highlight those books that didn’t garner as much attention as I think they should have. Honourable mentions therefore to The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton; The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh; The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Here they are then, the books published this year that entertained me the most, made me laugh (to the point of tears sometimes), cry, gasp and look on in wonder and admiration at the writer’s skill. The books I want to thrust into your hands and say ‘Read this!’. (Click on the titles for the original reviews.)


House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

A coup d’état on a island that might be Trinidad and Tobago. A bookish man named Ashes who gets caught up in the idea of revolution; a teenager called Breeze who thinks it will lead to a better life for him, and Aspasia Garland, Minster for the Environment and a hostage. A powerful book about power, poverty and leadership. My book of the year.



The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

An unnamed prisoner on death row; an attorney investigating whether a prisoner can be saved on appeal; the fallen priest; the prison warden; a guard; a white haired boy. Abuse, control, freedom. Who’s good and who’s bad. Breathtaking prose. I have no idea why this book isn’t being raved about everywhere.



H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

A book that is being raved about everywhere and deservedly so. Macdonald’s memoir of training a goshawk, Mabel, following her father’s sudden death, using her own experience to reflect upon that of T. H. White. Beautiful prose and an absorbing story.


The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Someone’s leaving letters in Wang Jun’s taxi. Letters that say they’re from a soulmate he’s had for over a thousand years, a soulmate who will take us on a journey through China’s history and lead Wang Jun to question his family and his friendship. A bizarre omission from the Booker Prize list, I have high hopes of this being on the Bailey’s Prize list.



In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie

Interesting voice, interesting structure, interesting themes, heartbreaking story. How Jacob Little goes in search of Solace (a woman he lived with and loved at university but he’s also searching for inner peace). It’s clever and thoughtful but also a good story. Longlisted for The Green Carnation Prize but I’ve seen very little about it elsewhere, another one I’m hoping to see on the Bailey’s Prize list.



Academy Street – Mary Costello

The story of Tess, from being a young girl in a big house in Ireland when her mother dies, through the rest of her life in New York as a nurse. A small life, quietly told in beautiful, considered prose. Heartbreaking.





Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

Laura and Tyler are best friends, flatmates and drinking buddies, but Laura’s getting married to Jim who’s just gone teetotal and Tyler’s not happy about the changes afoot. There’s always time for one last bender though, isn’t there? Absolutely hilarious but with many thought-provoking moments about what it’s like to be a woman in your late 20’s/early 30s railing against society’s expectations.



Thirst – Kerry Hudson

An unlikely love story between Dave, a Bond Street shop security guard and Alena, a Siberian woman, trafficked to the UK and caught stealing shoes. Dave and Alena’s stories are heartbreaking enough but their attempts to forge a relationship through the walls they’ve built up and the cultural differences has moments I found completely devastating.



After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

John Cole, lost in a heatwave, arrives at a house in which the inhabitants are expecting him. He soon realises he’s not their John Cole but stays anyway. There he begins to discover what both he and those around him are capable of. Eerie, disconcerting and unusual.



A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

The story of the Bradley family, a family of Mormons, coming to terms with the death of their youngest member, Issy, from meningitis. We move between the family members – two teenagers, Zippy and Alma, seven-year-old Jacob, and parents Ian and Claire as they question their faith and work out how life can go on. Unexpectedly full of humour with great characters.



The Woman Who Stole My Life – Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney’s back in Ireland trying to write a follow-up to the best-selling novel that saw her move to New York. Her yoga loving son who hates her is in tow; her artist ex-husband, Ryan, is giving everything he owns away in the name of art, and whose phone calls is she avoiding? Funny, smart and a cracking love interest.



Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

When Mattie starts forgetting things and then disappears, her godson, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans and Vee Sedge. Vee and her son, Donald, are both taking advantage of the outbreak of war in their own ways. Noel ends up drawn into both. A novel about survival with crooked characters you can’t help but fall for. Funny, acutely observed and heartwarming.



Wake – Anna Hope

The return of the unknown soldier to Westminster. The story of three women whose lives have been affected by the war. Hettie, a dancer whose brother, Fred, has PTSD. Evelyn, who lost a fiancé and a finger in the war. She’s also losing her brother who’s returned a different person. Ada, whose son Michael died but who she continues to see on the street. Their stories are connected although they’ll never meet. Devastating.



We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells the story of her family, quite an unusual family and the events that took place when she was sent to stay at her grandparents. Did it happen as she remembers or is she fooling herself? An unusual take on what it means to be a family.




Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The one that converted me to Marilynne Robinson. Lila is a prequel to Gilead and tells the story of his second wife prior to and including their meeting and marrying. It’s about loneliness, not being able to see yourself clearly and fighting the urge to run away. The prose is beautiful and the story is heartbreaking.



2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Marie-Helene Bertino

Christmas Eve Eve in Philadelphia. Nine-year-old Madeline’s mother is dead from cancer and her father can’t get out of bed. She’s desperate to sing – at school initially but, better still, at a jazz club. Madeline’s teacher, Sarina, has dinner with her ex-boyfriend to contend with after school ends and Jack Lorca, owner of the Cat’s Pajamas, jazz club, has a relationship with his son which is in need of repair and a police fine that he can’t pay. The day that awaits all three of them is skilfully interwoven in a story that’s equal amounts grit and heartwarming.


Wake – Anna Hope

Wake spans four days in 1920, Sunday 7th to Wednesday 10th November. Those days are significant as they were the days during which the Unknown Warrior was transported from a field in France to Westminster Abbey; an attempt to direct individual’s and the nation’s grief for those who had died and been buried (or so their families had been told) on or next to the battlefields of the First World War.

While these events are occurring, three women are going about their daily lives. Lives which have been impacted upon by the war and are about to changed further.

Hettie Burns, a dancer at Hammersmith Palais, is the first of these women we meet. She’s on her way to a private members’ club in the West End with her friend, Di. There, a jazz band plays and a man literally bumps into Hettie. She finds him disconcerting and later when he asks her to dance:

And it’s there; it’s in that first tiny movement – the flash of recognition. Yes! The rare feeling she gets when someone knows how to move. Then the music crashes in, and they are dancing together across the floor.

Hettie still lives at home with her mother and her brother, Fred.  Hettie’s trying to push boundaries – her mother dislikes the fact that Hettie dances for a living and that her friend, Di, lives alone – but she seems bound to home due to Fred:

‘Take your coat off then, and carry these over for me.’
She does as she’s told, taking two plates and putting one in front of her brother’s place.
‘Thanks,’ said Fred softly.
Thanks he can manage. Please and thank you and sometimes, if you’re lucky and you ask him a direct question, yes or no. Anything else is a push. Ever since he came back from France. He speaks enough at night though. Cries and shouts out the names of men in his sleep. She can hear him through the walls.


Evelyn shares a flat with her friend, Doreen. Evelyn’s whole life is infected with the aftermath of war. One of the first things we discover about her is her reoccurring dream:

It begins like this: she’s in the sitting room of the house she grew up in, and she is reading a book. The doorbell rings; she marks her place and stands, moving across the carpet to the door. Now all she has to do is turn the handle and step into the hall, and Fraser will be there, waiting for her on the other side. Her hand is over the doorknob, and she is touching it, can feel the cool brass of it sliding into her palm; she presses down, the door swings open and –
She opens her eyes. She never gets any further than this.

Fraser was her fiancé.

Evelyn’s brother Edward was a captain in the army and Evelyn worked in the munitions factory, losing a finger. She now works in the army pensions office, much to the chagrin of her family, who are landed gentry. It is through her job that she’ll meet an army private who will affect her greatly.

Our third woman is Ada, married to Jack for twenty-five years exactly; their son Michael was killed in the war. They received the standard letter informing them of his death but were never sent a follow-up informing them where his body lay. The absence of this information, prays on Ada and she believes she sees him in the street, following young men who appear like Michael from a glance. When we meet her, she’s visited by one of the young men who survived and is now trying to make a living selling dishcloths and tea towels. At his request, she lets him into the kitchen and then this happens:

She goes over to the fire, gives it a quick stoke, then walks quickly behind him towards the drawer that contains her purse. She turns to see if he is watching, but he has his back to her, smoking in quick, jabbing drags. She slides the door open as soundlessly as possible, lifting the purse out, searching inside, when there’s a sudden noise, a sort of strangled cry. She turns to see him staring at the air in front of him, curled forwards, his whole body straining towards something she cannot see.
‘Michael?’ he says. Then his head jerks once, twice as though caught in a fierce current, and is still.
Ada drops the purse back into the drawer. ‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing.’ The boy flinches, shaking his head. ‘I never. I never said nothing.’

The novel’s structured in a way that means we move between each of these women’s stories, and, through them, the stories of the men. What’s particularly impressive about this is the way the men’s stories are gradually revealed though the women and how all three of these women become connected, although they are unaware of each others’ existence and never meet.

Alongside the impact of trench warfare on the men, Hope also explores the societal changes for women at this time – freedom, in all its guises – and how this causes tension between the generations. Evelyn, in particular, with her determination to have meaningful work alongside her astute political mind, is a particular joy in this area. On hearing that her cousin, Lady Charlotte is pregnant, she retorts:

‘What do you think you’ll have? Cannon fodder? Or the other kind? What shall we call it? Drawing-room fodder? Tedium fodder?’

Although Wake – as the title suggests – is not purely about mourning – it does end on a redemptive note, the story that hangs at the centre of it is bleak indeed and left me feeling broken. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the sign of a wonderful writer; I’ve already reserved a place for it on my best of 2014 list.


Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Ones to Read in 2014

For the last few weeks, I’ve been engrossed in some of the new releases coming our way in 2014. Here’s my pick of the ones I’ve most enjoyed. (Publication information is for the UK. Publication dates may change.)

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

It’s been widely reported that Bray received a six-figure advance for her debut novel (her previous publication was a book of short stories Sweet Home which won the Scott Prize) and once you’ve read it it’s obvious why. A Song for Issy Bradley follows the Bradley family in the wake of the youngest child’s death. The Bradleys are Mormons – the father, Ian, is the local bishop; mum, Claire, married into the faith and questions it following Issy’s death. She crawls into Issy’s bunk bed and refuses to get out. Of the three remaining children, the teenagers, Alma and Zippy, struggle with usual teenage worries, being Mormons and the death of their sister, while Jacob, the youngest, tries to bring Issy back. As dark a subject as this is, Bray has an eye for humour in even the blackest situations and the book is an absolute joy from beginning to end.
Published: 19th June by Hutchinson

With 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, there are a number of books set in this era published next year. Here are two great WWI novels and a WWII one:

Wake – Anna Hope

Another brilliant debut. Wake follows three women – Hettie, a dancer at the Hammersmith Palais, whose brother Fred has been left traumatised by the war; Evelyn, a clerk in the army pensions and benefits office whose brother Ed was an army captain, and Ada, whose son Michael was killed in the war, although she’s never been told how. These women’s stories are told over the four days in 1920 that it takes to bring the body of the Unknown Warrior from France to London. This is a powerful novel, cleverly structured. It left me feeling broken.
Published: 16th January by Doubleday


The Lie – Helen Dunmore

One of my favourite novelists returns with the story of Daniel, a young private in the war who has returned to the small Cornish coastal town in which he grew up. Haunted by the death of his best friend, Frederick, he acquires a smallholding and, besides visits to Frederick’s sister Felicia, isolates himself. But in order to maintain his detachment, Daniel tells a lie that will be his undoing. Dunmore successfully portrays a young man involved in horrific events and wracked with guilt over one event in particular.
Published: 16th January by Hutchinson


The Railwayman’s Wife – Ashley Hay

Ani Lachlan lives on the Australian coast with her husband, Mac, and their daughter, Isabel. Mac works on the railway, a job that’s meant he avoided serving in the war. Roy McKinnon’s returned from the war and has found that the poetry he was able to write during the event now evades him. When Mac is killed in an accident on the railway, Ani is offered a job running the town’s library. Perhaps the power of words can help heal both her and Roy McKinnon. Quietly affecting.
Published: 2nd January by Allen & Unwin (Already available on Kindle for the price of a chocolate bar at the time of writing.)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

Rebecca Winter, once a famous photographer – everyone had that poster (the one with the same title as the novel) – rents out her New York apartment and moves into a cottage upstate in the hope that the cheaper rent will help her cover ever increasing bills. Rebecca’s unprepared for country living but Sarah, who runs the local tearoom, and the makeshift crosses that Rebecca keeps finding on the hill outside her cottage might help her see a different sort of life. I loved it.
Published: 30th January by Hutchinson


The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes

Jess Thomas, single mum to two kids – Tanzie, a gifted mathematician and Nicky, her stepson who’s bullied for being different – works two jobs to make ends meet. Her husband, Marty, has left them to live with his mum and get himself together; he sends them no financial support and when Tanzie’s offered a 90% scholarship to the local private school, he refuses to help with the rest of the fees, forsaking Tanzie’s dream. Ed Nicholls, suspended from his own company for insider trading, finds himself lying low in his holiday home – one of Jess’ cleaning jobs. When they meet sparks fly – and not in a good way – which leads to one unusual road trip. As brilliant as we’ve come to expect from Jojo Moyes.
Published: 27th February by Penguin

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells us her story; the story of her family – her sister, Fern, who was taken away when she was five; her brother, Lowell, who is missing, wanted for domestic terrorism, and her parents and the lifestyle they led when she was growing up – and the story of her time in college, specifically her friendship with the drama student (and drama queen) Harlow Fielding. Told in a forceful first person narrative with a fragmented structure, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks at human behaviour and finds us wanting. Highly quotable.
Published: 6th March by Serpent’s Tail

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth Field, 75, is widowed and lives alone on the New South Wales coast, Australia. At night, she thinks she hears a tiger in her living room, although she is aware that it’s probably her imagination. A stranger, Frieda Young, arrives at Ruth’s door and tells her that she’s been sent by the government to look after her. Frieda reminds Ruth of her time in Fiji as a young girl, so while her sons rarely visit, she allows Frieda into her life with some devastating consequences. Terrifying.
Published: 16th January by Sceptre

Fallout – Sadie Jones

1960s London. Luke Kanowski escapes Seston, Nottinghamshire, contacts Paul Driscoll, a man he’s met once, and embarks on fulfilling both their dreams of working in the theatre. Nina Hollings is following in her mother’s footsteps by training to be an actress. But dreams are limited by cages created by family and society and the lives of the protagonists will be jaded by them. Fallout takes Jones’ writing to a new level, ambitious and mature.
Published: 1st May by Chatto & Windus

The Dead Wife’s Handbook – Hannah Beckerman

Rachel has died, aged 36, of undiagnosed arrhythmia. She narrates the novel from the place she’s currently in – one which allows her some access to watch over her widowed husband, Max, and their seven-year-old daughter, Ellie. Rachel doesn’t like seeing their grief but when her best friend, Harriet, suggests Max starts dating again, Rachel has to start to come to terms with letting him go. This could have been schmaltzy but it’s far from it. Had me reading late and sobbing.
Published: 13th February by Penguin but you can read the first two chapters here.

The Virgins – Pamela Erens

1979, Auburn Academy, an elite Jewish boarding school. The virgins are the couple Aviva Rossner and Seung Young whose classmates, ironically, think are shagging like clichéd rabbits. Narrated by their then classmate, Bruce Bennett-Jones, Erens explores the gap between appearance and reality and the consequences that gap can bring about. Tense and ultimately, shocking.
Published: 30th January by John Murray

The Last Boat Home – Dea Brovig

1974, a small Norwegian costal town. Else lives with her religious mother and fisherman father. They are poor, although this doesn’t prevent Else from sneaking around with the son of the richest man in town. Nonetheless, it is something else that will have far deeper consequences for Else: the arrival of a travelling circus. The echoes of those consequences are still being heard in the present-day sections that punctuate the book. Atmospheric and disturbing.
Published: 13th March 2014 by Hutchinson

There is also a handful of books I haven’t had the pleasure of being able to read yet but I’m eagerly anticipating.

Firstly, two young writers whose debuts – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma and Hungry, The Stars and Everything, respectively – I loved and bought for numerous friends have second novels arriving this year:

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

The beginning of a relationship is usually all about getting to know one another, sharing stories far into the night, comparing experiences, triumphs and heartaches, until we know each other inside out.

Not so for Dave and Alena. He’s from London, she’s from Siberia. They meet in a sleek Bond Street department store in the frayed heat of high summer where she’s up to no good and it’s his job to catch her. So begins an unlikely relationship between two people with pasts, with secrets, they’ve no idea how to live with — or leave behind. But despite everything they don’t have in common, all the details they won’t and can’t reveal, they still find themselves fighting with all they’ve got for a future together.
Published: 17th July by Chatto & Windus

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move.

I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which was it with you?’

Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together, angrily philosophising and leading each other astray in the pubs and flats of Manchester. But things are set to change. Laura is engaged to teetotal Jim, the wedding is just months away, and Tyler becomes hell-bent on sabotaging her friend’s plans for a different life.

Animals is a hilarious, moving and refreshingly honest tale of how a friendship can become the ultimate love story.
Published: 1st May 2014 by Canongate

And two established writers:

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt

Artist Harriet Burden, consumed by fury at the lack of recognition she has received from the New York art establishment, embarks on an experiment: she hides her identity behind three male fronts who exhibit her work as their own. And yet, even after she has unmasked herself, there are those who refuse to believe she is the woman behind the men.

Presented as a collection of texts compiled by a scholar years after Burden’s death, the story unfolds through extracts from her notebooks, reviews and articles, as well as testimonies from her children, her lover, a dear friend, and others more distantly connected to her. Each account is different, however, and the mysteries multiply. One thing is clear: Burden’s involvement with the last of her ‘masks’ turned into a dangerous psychological game that ended with the man’s bizarre death.
Published: 13th March by Sceptre

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be…
Published: 4th September by Virago

I hope that’s whetted your appetite for what’s to come. Full reviews will appear here on the week of publication for each novel.

Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.