It’s 1911 and Ella, John and Clem are living in Sharston Asylum, hoping to be released one day. Men and women are segregated, with the exception of the weekly dance held in the grand ballroom. Normally they are put to work; women in the laundry, men digging graves and working the land. Charles is the head of music at the asylum. He believes the weekly dances and regular music therapy are the key to change. The book alternates between Ella, John and Charles to give a tragic, bleak tale of life in the asylum.
The opening of the book throws you right into the middle of the story. It was easy to imagine the asylum itself and I was immediately struck by the helplessness of those staying there. The characters had very clear and different voices to allow a complete view of Sharston. Ella is newly admitted and immediately tries to escape, John has been there for a long time, and Charles provides the voice of the keen doctor who wants to make a difference. Clem is a real star of the book. She takes Ella under her wing, shows her the ropes and befriends her.
Anna Hope used her own family history as inspiration to explore the boundaries between poverty and madness and the responsibility entrusted to doctors. She shows beauty in the grounds contrasted with the despair in the buildings. There is an underlying current of hope in an unjust world, making it a tragic but heartwarming story.
If you liked The Ballroom you may also enjoy A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale.
I received a copy of the book via NetGalley.