The World Before Us

Winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize


––The Guardian  (Read entire review)


–– Penelope Lively, The New York Times Book Review (Read entire review)


––Psychologies Magazine, UK

A Best Book of 2015 pick in The Guardian (UK) and @NPR Books

978-0-385-68064-6world before usTheWorldBeforeUsPG_WorldBeforeUs      .            Canada                            USA                                UK/Commonwealth


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.

Here is a riveting, gorgeously written novel that powerfully reminds us of the possibility that we are less alone than we might think.

“Hypnotically beautiful…Hunter’s vocabulary for describing the natural and man-made world rivals Byatt’s for breadth and dazzling specificity; her novel is a curiosity cabinet of gorgeous descriptions.”

– The Chicago Tribune

“Narrated by a chorus of ghosts…Jane’s story is an emotionally and intellectually satisfying journey in the manner of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. And like those two works’ juxtaposition of past and present, this one movingly dramatizes how unknowable the past can be.”

– Publishers Weekly

“A complex, subtle, and utterly haunting meditation on memory, history, and mortality. This book is magnificent.”

– Emily St. John Mandel, author of National Book Award Finalist and New York Times Bestseller Station Eleven

The World Before Us is a powerful balancing act. . . It moves confidently line-by-line, drawing us in. It is a novel of considerable beauty, threaded with violence and pain, a melancholic book with moments of grace and joy. It is a thought-provoking novel, haunting and haunted, rooted in the power of history and of the individuals within it, and outside it. . . It is the sort of novel which forces you to look at the world—the people around you, the objects they hold dear—in a different light.”

The Globe and Mail

 An ambitious new novel about the vitality of objects and history’s knack for bleeding into the present. Intricate in both expression and construction, and dense in thematic implication, The World Before Us cleverly innovates while tipping a nod to classic Gothic tropes: dynastic rivalries, crumbling country houses, madhouses and vanished girls. Hunter is less tempted by spooky thrills than the chance to explore ways in which human affection resonates across time.”

National Post

 “A haunting tale of loss and reconciliation. . .The novel’s three timelines are deftly woven together, illustrating the ways life takes on meaning even through objects and places. Hunter refers to history as ‘a shifting trickster’ and uses that premise to hook readers, as they . . .  embark on a quest for meaning and truth in the face of tragedy.”


 “The novel’s characters are deeply imagined and multi-layered, and brought to life through potent scenes and fresh images. . . The startling narrative point of view deepens the story, and even adds odd flashes of humour. Hunter . . . is a versatile writer, and with The World Before Us, she has created her most ambitious and original work, one that demands the deep, concentrated focus of its readers.”

Quill and Quire

“Daring and mesmerizing. A haunting, irresistible story and an urgent mystery about what it means to pass through this life.  Hunter has a poet’s eye and ear, and she goes after the elusive – the waywardness of memory, the grief of random loss, the yearning of existence – in an unfolding drama that is absorbing, luminous and powerfully human.”

– Alison MacLeod, Man Booker Prize-nominated author of Unexploded

“Haunting…a compelling exploration of how memory shapes and is shaped by individuals and society.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“[B]eguiling…everything is an echo of something else in this richly suggestive novel about memory and grief…. The real story is about the way the lives of the dead lie beneath the surface of the present.”

– Metro, UK

“With a great eye for the telling detail…. the novel’s tough truths held my interest as the book wound on, making The World Before Us a memorable read.”

– NPR Books

 “A richly layered narrative harmonizing the past and present, dissolving the boundaries of time frames and showing the possible connections between people and places and objects. . . The World Before Us is a well-constructed and thoughtful novel on serious subjects. The historical detail never overwhelms; instead it brings alive the past and shows the seamlessness of past and present, especially the human need for contact, which transcends time and place.”

The Vancouver Sun

“Once in a rare while a novel comes along to remind us of what great fiction can do: creating a world so sublimely felt that, for the hours we spend reading, we are lifted out of our own lives, and when we return we find ourselves immeasurably altered and enriched. The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is such a novel. It is a brilliant work of humanity and imagination, artful and breathtakingly beautiful, and it will continue to haunt long after you have finished reading.” 

Helen Humphreys

Romance of the Field, by Veda Hille, a song inspired by The World Before Us

Download it for free at

Author Aislinn Hunter asked me to write a song to go along with her new book, The World Before Us. I got to read the uncorrected proof, which is always thrilling, and found many familiar touchstones from my own work and life. Most striking was the book’s loving account of Victorian era museums, including a glass case of taxidermy hummingbirds that stopped me in my tracks many years ago. They show up in the song here, as well as distant voices, old pianos, and a fair helping of “scientific” longing. Listen to the song, read the book, and listen to the song again!

—Veda Hille