I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
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.
Can you work in archives and museums and not be haunted by the past? Maybe it depends on what your own past conceals. Sometimes, when I am doing family history research, I feel like I have a cloud of ghostly companionship—perhaps even guiding me, getting me to notice certain things, pushing little thoughts into my head. Very much like the situation that Jane discovers herself in The World Before Us.
Haunted by the disappearance of a child she was minding when she was a young teen, Jane retreats into the archival world, dealing with papers and objects rather than people. In fact her ties to the world of people are rather tenuous—an absent father, a distant brother, an ex-boyfriend, her teenage crush on the father of the missing girl. Jane has gone missing too, but unlike little Lily, no one notices her absence. In fact, when Lily goes missing, no one even thinks to comfort Jane or let her know what was going on. She is as invisible as the ghostly presences which surround her.
This is the story of Jane finding herself through investigating another missing young woman, the mysterious N. who has disappeared from a Victorian asylum in the same area where Lily disappeared. By sorting out the stories of the people involved in that event, Jane finds the wherewithal to make a connection in the real world and to break out of her self-imposed exile.
Touching, well-written, rather dreamy in tone, The World Before Us shows us that there are patterns in life, which repeat, although never exactly.