A Victorian Mystery: The World Before Us

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Seems like the only times I ever read CanLit these days are when it’s a complete accident. I read the description of Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us and was won over by the idea of disappearances a century apart and the search for answers across time. It encompassed a lot of things that I enjoy in the novels I read: a Victorian setting, changing narratives, a mystery. If I had taken a quick look at any author details, I would have probably passed.


Archivist Jane is haunted by the disappearance of 5 year old Lily, who was in her care, on a day trip in the woods when Jane was 15. She has spent years thinking it was somehow her fault, like she missed something, or caused the disappearance to happen either because she did something, or because she didn’t. When Jane is 34 the museum she works at is about to close and as one last hurrah, they are giving away a prize to someone who works in the field of botany. This year’s guest of honour is the father of the girl who disappeared. Coming face to face with him after so many years causes a kind of break for Jane, who has up to this point, retreated completely into herself.

She decides that she wants to continue a research project she started when she was a grad student, looking into the disappearance of a woman, known only as N, from a convalescent home in the area where Lily disappeared. She packs up all the materials she has gathered over the years, takes her dog Sam, leaves her cell phone behind and just takes off.

Along for the ride are spirits attached to Jane, searching for the answers to who they used to be, thinking that once they know they will disappear and move on to whatever is next. We get hazy ideas of who they might be – they have assigned titles to themselves to keep track: the theologian, Cat, the one with the soft voice. They stick with Jane in the hopes that her work will give them the answers they crave.

So. It’s an incredibly awesome idea. I love the idea of these spirits attached to Jane, holding answers to questions they didn’t know they had. But the spirits are so unformed, necessarily since they don’t know anything about themselves, that it’s hard to be attached to them. It’s only after 300 pages that things start moving along, that the pieces start to slide into place. Jane, herself fairly unformed due to her years long habit of shutting out the world and living almost exclusively in the past, is difficult to get attached to. I wanted her to find out the mystery of N, but only because I wanted the answer, not because I was confident that it would be such a watershed moment in Jane’s life, giving her the closure she so obviously needs.

But you know that I’m a sucker for strong endings. This one reminded me of The Goldfinch, where after all the hard work of making the pieces fit together, you are treated to philosophical musings on the connections we forge with those around us, of finding common threads to times and people that have been forgotten and how it’s important to look outside of yourself.

I think I ended up liking this book, which is a big deal considering my relationship to CanLit in general, but only for the last 100 pages. Before that I was reading to get to the good part. When the story does finally pick up some meat on its story bones, it became infinitely more readable. I just wish we had gotten to that part sooner.


13 thoughts on “A Victorian Mystery: The World Before Us

      • Okay, now I’m curious. What makes it CanLit…that the author is Canadian? What about it do you not usually like? Lol, this is turning into a game of twenty questions!

      • It used to mean a lot more – it was regional and dealt with themes that were very *Canadian*. But as Canadian authors have spread out and written more diversely the definition has become looser and basically now means anything written by a Canadian.
        You probably would not know this but Canada has a habit of taking things that are popular in the States and turning them Canadian: popular examples are The Bachelor Canada, Amazing Race Canada, Big Brother Canada. I realize they are all reality TV so maybe not the best examples. The problem is that when they do this they always feel “less than.” They don’t normally have the production value for one thing. And this is kind of the way that I feel about Canadian Literature. Probably because it’s moved away from the truer definition (and I never identified with those more Canadian themes growing up in Vancouver, which is decidedly “other” in Canada), Canadian authors write about so many different places and themes now but they feel imitative.
        To me anyway.
        If that makes ANY sense.

  1. Okay. It could be worse, right? Too bad you hadn’t liked it more, but I am still curious about it. It’s better that it end well, then start well and end badly.

  2. I agree with Naomi – it’s better that the book gets better by the end than start out strong and end poorly. I still need to post my review of this book too but I ended up really, really liking it. I was fascinated with all the storylines, especially with N’s. The first chapter did a really good job of hooking me in right from the start. I can see how the prolonged resolution could be frustrating though.(But in my case I just loved the writing so much that it didn’t really matter.)

    • I think maybe because there were so many but none of them were fully formed, I got frustrated. I would have liked to have been hooked from the start but I kept reading to find that hook. I do agree that it was beautifully written, I just wish it was less soft focus – I wanted to see things more clearly.

  3. Hmm, the spirits do sound like a really good concept, but I need to avoid super long books that don’t draw you in right away for a bit. My attention span is short these days

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