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Afterimage

by Helen Humphreys

It is daunting to review a book as accomplished as Helen Humphreys’ second novel, Afterimage. One scarcely knows how to do justice to prose of such sharp beauty, characters of such astonishing complexity, settings so perfectly particular, themes that sweep like flame across human experience tempering the meandering course of a life and the unwieldy movements of society into hard, brilliant slivers of truth.

That Humphreys is a skilled and insightful writer is well proved in her several books of poetry and her first novel, Leaving Earth, the story of two 1930s aviatrixes, which won the City of Toronto Book Award. With Afterimage, Humphreys moves deeper into the past and deeper into the nature of desire, between individuals and within the human soul.

Annie Phelan is an Irish-born servant who joins the household of Isabelle and Eldon Dashell, arriving at their country house in the south of England in the summer of 1865. Eldon is a map-maker, a house bound explorer, who converts to image the diaries and surveys of those who venture into uncharted territory. Isabelle is a photographer struggling to capture her visions in the play of light on a glass plate. Both are engaged in recording physical reality.

Humphreys cleverly sets her drama at that moment when one art is dying and the other is being born. The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, in displaying all the products and produce of the world under one roof, signalled the end of the age of exploration. As Eldon says, “It made the world seem ours.” The new map he is asked to draw, one showing mineral deposits and harvestable forests, marks a shift to a different view of the world, one where landforms serve not as guides to discovery but as destinations for exploitation.

Annie becomes a confidante to Eldon, the frustrated traveller, and poses as a model for Isabelle: both absorb the young woman into their stories, one thinking of her as a member of the expedition, the other casting her as a succession of female stereotypes. Humphreys names the sections in the book after Isabelle’s photographs – Guinevere, Ophelia, Sappho, the three virtues of Grace, Humility, and Faith, and Mary Madonna, mortal and divine. Everyone in the book eventually gets their picture taken: photography is the great equalizer. But it also makes the private public, as Isabelle discovers when her desire for Annie is caught by the lens. Yet, image can be controlled, even created. “What is to be believed?” asks Annie. “Is the true story the story that is made or the story that is forgotten?”

On one level, the story of Annie, Isabelle, and Eldon is a love triangle as gripping as any in literature. On another, it explores the distinctly human obsession with image, what is gained and what is lost in pursuing the desire to fix a moment forever. Afterimage may be set in the distant past, but because it unfolds as the modern age is being born, Humphreys’ novel comments darkly on our own image-haunted time.