Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Helen Humphreys

A while ago I read The lost garden by Helen Humphreys and loved it. I wanted to read more by the author, particularly her book Coventry, which is a WW2 drama, but The lost garden was, and still is, the only book by Helen Humphreys in my county libraries. The other day I suddenly remembered that one of my friends (now a colleague) had mentioned that she had another book by Humphreys and I finally got around to asking to borrow it.

Afterimage is a wonderful read which I just couldn't put down until I'd finished it, returning it to my friend 23 hours after she'd lent it to me. Set in the Victorian period, it's the story of the new world that Irish maid Annie Phelan encounters when she takes up employment at the home of Isabelle and Eldon Dashell. It's a big contrast to the strict house where Annie worked previously, and she struggles to come to terms with the differences, such as the lack of prayers. Isabelle her employer is childless and trying to break the bounds of the conventions of the age and be a person in her own right, and is a photographer. Eldon is a frail cartographer who wants to go on expeditions but is frustrated by his own ill-health. Annie ends up trying to help each, acting as a muse and model for Isabelle and providing Eldon with someone to discuss expeditions and literature with. Both become romantically interested in her, creating a tense situation.

It's impossible to do justice to this book in a review - the only thing to do is read it. Both my friend and I loved the lyrical writing, which isn't surprising given that Humphreys is also known for her poetry. And in some ways it was reminiscent of Sarah Waters, due to the period setting and lesbian elements, but as my friend pointed out it considerably pre-dates Waters.

I enjoyed it so much that I couldn't resist buying Coventry (after all, I'd be able to lend it to my friend when done). After that I'd love to read Leaving earth, but unfortunately my friend has mislaid her copy. I'm very keen also to read the non fiction book that Humphreys wrote about Frost Fairs, having heard a fascinating programme on the subject on the radio two Christmases ago.


  1. I read Coventry last year and it was one of my favorite books of 2009. It's a really great book.

  2. "Reminiscent of Sarah Waters" makes it sound quite wonderful. I've never heard of this author before!

  3. The Lost Garden and Coventry were such excellent reads! Begs the question why I haven't read afterimage yet, it sounds riveting as well.

  4. I love Helen Humphreys. Whenever I pick up one of her books, I find it impossible to put down. Thank goodness they're short and can be read in one sitting! Coventry is very good, but I'm probably most fond of The Frozen Thames. Even two years after reading it for the first time, I can still recall some of the images from it, so beautifully and powerfully were they presented.

  5. I haven't heard of this author before but her books sound wonderful. As I was reading the start of your review I was thinking "this sounds a lot like Sarah Waters' latest book" - and then you said that yourself!

  6. Anbolyn - thanks for stopping by - you're a librarian too!

    Jenny - definitely worth exploring.

    Darlene - wasn't it you who went to a talk by her?

    Claire - I am desperate to see Frozen Thames but all of the copies available are quite expensive! Next on the list is Leaving earth.

    Karen - I think she should definitely be recommended to anyone who likes Sarah W.

  7. There was an author event this past Autumn and Sarah Waters was speaking with Helen (would have been fabulous!). Unfortunately, it was on a Sunday that we had plans with friends AND the talk was in a rural community quite far away. If they were in Toronto, I would definitely have attended!

  8. I read Coventry only a couple of weeks ago and loved it - such spare, beautiful writing. For some reason I thought her only other book was The Frozen Thames (which I also want to read). I am now over the moon to read here that she has other fiction books - off to thebookdepository I go (again!)

  9. Samantha - excellent news for you indeed! I am desperate to get hold of Frozen Thames but it is very expensive :(


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