For all it's set in an asylum, this novel is less about insanity per se than about 'normality', the 'madness' that lurks within and the truth that, ultimately, all most of us need to heal is love.
Its quiet brilliance lies in the subtlety with which author Anna Hope introduces her characters and ideas and then plays with the reader's perceptions as it goes along.
The year is 1911, a fertile time for theories on the treatment of the mentally ill. In an asylum up on the Yorkshire moors, Charles, a young doctor is attempting to breathe fresh life into the old ways of doing things. He is keen on music therapy, the outdoors and letting the inmates work to earn money and self-respect, but his theories are not without their darker side and he harbours a secret that might, at the time, have been thought of as a form of madness of its own.
Meanwhile among the inmates there are men and women no madder than he is. Ella, broken by the system, is there because she "lost it" in the factory where she worked; John has been made silent by grief; Dan, glorious Dan, is a larger-than-life free spirit no walls can contain.
While the men are permitted to work as labourers on local farms and gravediggers in the churchyard, the women never feel the sun on their backs, or the breeze on their cheeks. The two sides of the asylum are kept separate and only mix once a week, at the Friday night dance put on by Dr Charles as part of his Eugenics programme.
It is here that Ella and John get together. Wary at first, and shy, their friendship grows into love cooling Ella's anger and opening John's heart. He writes her letters she can't read, filled with tiny presents: a feather, a leaf, a stone. She gives him her soul. Is it enough?
I love a novel that explores the development of ideas especially in science and medicine. It's always interesting to look on with the benefit of hindsight and see the fumbling processes that got us to where we are today. As I know from my own research, for every brilliant life-changing theory there is at least one crackpot idea that gains enough currency to do terrible damage before it is abandoned. The thing is this: how, at the beginning, can you tell the difference?
Anna Hope is a genius at conjuring up the Edwardian period in all its stuffy, blinkered pomposity. There are conditions here we would recognise: anorexia, self harm and dementia and conditions that aren't conditions at all: sexuality, anger, grief, but Hope never judges. What is most telling is the hypocrisy that condemns one person to the asylum while letting another remain free.
This beguiling book dances a fine line between triumph and tragedy before ultimately declaring its hand so be warned to get in the tissues because you weep.