A Still (Complicated) Life – “Afterimage” by Helen Humphreys
In Helen Humphreys’ lovely “Afterimage,” the photographs are everything.
Shining light on the rise of photography as an art form, the plight of female artists, and some complicated relationships between women, “Afterimage” is really a triumph.
When young, pretty Annie Phelan comes to the Dashell household to be the new maid, she finds herself caught up in the dramatic relationship between Isabelle (the lady of the house) and her husband Eldon. Isabelle, an artist-turned-photographer, wants Annie to be her muse for a series of photographs of legendary characters like Ophelia and the Madonna, while Eldon sees a confidante and friend in Annie’s curiosity and love of reading and they bond over stories of Artic expedition. The Victorian mansion becomes a jealous and jumbly mess soon enough, as emotions flare and Isabelle and Annie embark on a sensual (though never dirty)bond, despite Eldon’s protestations and jealousy.
The novel isn’t unlike “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” in it’s handling of artist and muse and the lines that sometimes blur between those two people. Humphreys weaves this tale in exquisite detail, and each of the characters – from Annie (our hero) to the other servants of the house – are developed just enough for the reader to know them, while still getting to carve out their own visions of the person. The novel has definite undertones of Romanticism. Annie, a reader, likens her story to “Jane Eyre” frequently – and sure enough, like the Bronte classic the novel climaxes in a dramatic fire.
Side Note: I stumbled onto this book at Bookleggers Used Books in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The copy I bought – autographed by the author, mind you – was 7 bucks. This delighted me, and reminded me that I really don’t have to miss the now-closed neighborhood Borders.