The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

New York. Hogarth. 2015. ISBN 9780553418521

The World Before UsOur imagination “takes what it knows from one set of experiences and sinks them into another to create some semblance of truth, bridge time.” This is exactly what Aislinn Hunter has done in this intricately woven novel connecting the present, the past, and the imagination. 

When Jane was fifteen, she took up a temporary position as caretaker of a five-year-old named Lily. One day, Jane accompanied Lily and her father, William, on one of William’s botanical expeditions. Jane’s only duty there was to watch after Lily. But an innocent game with Lily amid flowers and trees turned into a frantic search for the missing five-year-old. As Jane turned around for a moment to glance at Lily’s handsome father while Lily was playing, Lily disappeared into the forest. Years later, Jane is an archivist at a London museum. As the museum lives its last few days before closing, Jane decides to pick up her old research and, perhaps, give herself some closure. 

The Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics was a Victorian-era asylum holding mental patients from around the country. Jane began researching this institute in college as her final dissertation. Even after the assignment was complete, however, the research opened up one mystery Jane had never managed to solve—the disappearance of a young girl, titled N in the historical logbooks, after her escape from the hospital in the 1870s. Now, after the closing of the museum, she began stirring up thoughts of Lily. This time, Jane was more determined than ever to find Lily, N, or, at least, herself. 

Told through the narratives of a collection of people, this novel opens up more questions than answers. It bridges time between the past and present in a way that shows the connections of different lives through different ages. It provokes the imagination to think not only of those around but also beyond us. 

Janny Gandhi
University of Oklahoma

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