Review: The World Before Us

22716411Title: The World Before Us
Author: Aislinn Hunter
Genre: Contemporary, magical realism

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:
When she was just fifteen, smart, sensitive Jane Standen lived through a nightmare: she lost the sweet five-year-old girl she was minding during a walk in the woods. The little girl was never found, leaving her family, and Jane, devastated. Now the grown-up Jane is an archivist at a small London museum that is about to close for lack of funding. As her one last project, she is searching the archives for scraps of information related to another missing person--a woman who disappeared some 125 years ago from a Victorian asylum. As the novel moves back and forth between the museum in contemporary London, the Victorian asylum, and a dilapidated country house that seems to connect both missing people, it unforgettably explores the repercussions of small acts, the power of affection, and the irrepressible vitality of everyday objects and events.
Here is a rivetting, gorgeously written novel that powerfully reminds us of the possibility that we are less alone than we might think. 
The World Before Us sounded like a haunting, unsettling, and poignant novel. I was really excited to uncover the ghosts of Jane Standen and see how past and present collide. Somehow, I just didn't get invested in the characters, and I felt like I was a distant spectator instead of someone immersed in these characters' headspaces. I was so distant that I just wasn't emotionally invested in this story, even though there were a lot of moments when I thought I should have been.

I think part of what made this story so unemotional for me is that it is narrated by a mysterious "we" who don't remember their names or lives or identities. The group that makes up the "we" is actually a set of ghosts who are trying to reconstruct their identity and relationship to each other using Jane Standen's research. This confused me at first, but once we started getting more pieces of the ghosts' identity, I started getting more invested in their lives. Then of course there had to be mysterious unexpected connections between all of them, and it felt too contrived for me to care anymore.

Another aspect of this book that made me take a step back from these characters is that Jane herself is emotionally numb. She is traumatized by a mistake in her past, and doesn't let herself think about it. She responds to her intense emotions by shutting them down instead of confronting their cause. We also only see her through the eyes of the ghosts, so it's hard to care about someone you're just watching instead of interacting with.

I think this book might be enjoyable and emotional for some people, but it just wasn't for me. I would recommend it for people who enjoy literary contemporary fiction; it is certainly a beautifully written and thoughtful look at the consequences of trauma.

*A free copy was provided by the publisher via NetGalley*

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