Just how do we know who we are? Is it our understanding of our own histories? What reveals us to ourselves and to those around us? These are only some of the questions raised by Aislinn Hunter’s novel The World Before Us. The ambiguity of the title resonates throughout the work calling our attention to the fact that not only does life spread out before us a path yet to be trod, a canvas yet to be drawn upon, but it also lies behind us. There was a world before we were, and, often, to make sense of our own time and our own lives we need to come to terms with what went before.
Even the novel’s narrative point of view underscores the way the past and present inform each other. In 1877 Yorkshire, a young woman walked out of The Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics with two other patients, both male, and was never seen again. In 1991, five year old Lily Eliot runs into the same woods and is never found. These two events lie at the heart of the novel. What happened to the missing woman and girl? Jane Standen, an about to be unemployed archivist—the small museum where she works is closing down—was fifteen and minding Lily when the little girl ran into the woods. Obsessed with the earlier disappearance, still burdened by Lily’s vanishing, Jane herself vanishes, assumes a pseudonym, and goes back to Yorkshire intent on trying to discover what happened in 1877.
The World Before Us prompts us to think about narratives and the way they are told, about our expectations of stories and our need for resolution. Further, it examines connection, dualities, and opposites; concerning itself with memories and reflections; with mystery and clarification, with the intersection of memory and recorded history, and the way our experience of these dualities contributes to our sense of identity and understanding of self.I found myself ransacking my bookshelves and the net for references to Husserl and Phenomenology, especially when it came to ideas of consciousness and what Terry Eagleton explains as “recentring the world upon the human subject” (Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 50). Eagelton explains Husserl’s term Lebenswelt or “living world” as “reality as actually organized and experienced by an individual subject” (51).
One way we experience the world, of course, is empirically through the things we touch and see, and we define ourselves through the objects with which we surround ourselves. If we lose those objects, if we lose our physical senses, then we lose equilibrium, become insecure. One of the narratives in The World Before Us is that of the Chester Museum from its founding as a private collection to its closure over a century later. The museum and its objects remind us of what I might call the flexibility of time—objects can last a long time; things that define us may outlast us.
When we experience an object from the past, we are briefly in touch with the past, but if we break or lose such an object, as Jane breaks an antique teacup, do we change the past, or only our perception of it? And then there is our response to objects and their context. What is just a plate to you may be a revered familial artefact to me. Objects have their own stories and tell ours. Our belongings reveal us, reflecting our subjectivity. One of the tasks of the archivist is, of course, is to organize material so those stories may be re/discovered, objects re/placed in their own histories, re/connected with their subjects. Sometimes the archivist is successful; sometimes not. Some stories cannot be recovered; some memories are lost. Confronted with an object or even a possible narrative, we sense only possibility and sometimes enigmatic absence.
The World Before Us is an intricate novel of ideas, but its complexity is the intricacy of a butterfly’s wing or of an ammonite, of both of which line drawings appear at times in the pages of the novel. In its exquisitely crafted seriousness and in its compassion, Hunter’s novel puts her in the company of writers such as Iris Murdoch and A. S. Byatt. The World Before Us invites us into the circle of time, reminding us “no force is lost, it can only be converted” (412).