Beautiful writing overwhelmed by gloomy content. 3.5/5 stars.
The blurb: Where love is your only escape ….
1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever.
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, THE BALLROOM is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
Perhaps I’m just an optimistic romantic… but when I read the blurb for The Ballroom I jumped to the conclusion it would be a “love conquers all” story. Well, it’s not.
I should have paid more attention to the final sentence of the blurb, which hits the nail more squarely on the head. This is a story about madness and, as it’s historical fiction, it doesn’t shy away from reflecting several of the most shocking contemporary views about mental illness (getting into eugenics and ideas of selective “breeding”) and the sometimes cruel treatment of the mentally ill in the early twentieth century.
In this sense, it’s important to note there are some scenes in this book which are deeply unsettling. They’re this way not only because of what they portray but because the writing is excellent and we feel great sympathy for the patients.
The story is told from three character viewpoints: a male patient, a female patient and one of the staff doctors. All three characters are well-drawn, complex and I enjoyed their contrasting perceptions. The descriptions of the asylum, its grounds and surroundings are also wonderful, particularly in how vividly the author manages to capture and convey changes in the seasons.
Overall: I found this a rather harrowing, gloomy read. I can’t deny there are moments of great beauty, but the depressing content outweighed the uplifting. Perhaps it would be easier to read if it were a book club choice and you could talk to people about it afterwards. And if you like to read a more sombre story from time-to-time then this would be ideal!