Book review | Talland House by Maggie Humm
Author: Maggie Humm
No. of pages: 352
Genre: Women's fiction, Historical fiction
Published on: 18th August 2020
Published by: She Writes Press
My rating: ★★★★☆
Royal Academy, London 1919: Lily has put her student days in St. Ives, Cornwall, behind her―a time when her substitute mother, Mrs. Ramsay, seemingly disliked Lily’s portrait of her and Louis Grier, her tutor, never seduced her as she hoped he would. In the years since, she’s been a suffragette and a nurse in WWI, and now she’s a successful artist with a painting displayed at the Royal Academy. Then Louis appears at the exhibition with the news that Mrs. Ramsay has died under suspicious circumstances. Talking to Louis, Lily realizes two things: 1) she must find out more about her beloved Mrs. Ramsay’s death (and her sometimes-violent husband, Mr. Ramsay), and 2) She still loves Louis.
Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story outside the confines of Woolf’s novel―as a student in 1900, as a young woman becoming a professional artist, her loves and friendships, mourning her dead mother, and solving the mystery of her friend Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden death. Talland House is both a story for our present time, exploring the tensions women experience between their public careers and private loves, and a story of a specific moment in our past―a time when women first began to be truly independent.
Disclaimer: this review is coming from someone who has never read any of Virginia Woolf's works. So I'll be reviewing this book without any comparison to Woolf's To The Lighthouse, the book that inspired Talland House and its characters.
Talland House by Maggie Humm is a beautiful piece of women fiction and historical fiction. It revolves around Lily Briscoe, a budding painter who has come to the island of St. Ives, in Cornwall, to complete her student days as a painter. There she meets Louis Grier, her tutor, whom she starts developing feelings for. As her days in the picturesque island pass, she meets the Ramsays who live in Talland House, their summer house in the island. The Ramsays were an odd pair of couple - Mrs. Ramsay being the one emanating motherly affection for Lily, whereas Mr. Ramsay being a stone-cold patriarchal head. The story spans across 1900 to 1919, wherein, it traces Lily's journey from a student to one of the renowned artists in the country.
The story starts of in The Royal Academy, London, where Lily's painting of the dahlias she painted at Talland House, is being exhibited. Her ex-tutor comes to see her work, and to Lily's shock, it is revealed that Mrs. Ramsay has met death under mysterious circumstances. Lily decides that she must discover why and how Mrs. Ramsay, who had always treated Lily as her own daughter, died.
The story fluidly goes to and from different phases in Lily's life - her life as a student in Cornwall, her life as a renowned artist, her life as a nurse during the WWI and her life after Mrs. Ramsay's death when she goes back to Talland House to investigate her death. Maggie Humm beautifully captures the life of a struggling independent woman in the 1900s through Lily's story - her heart-flutter infatuation for Loius, contemplating the missed opportunity of a possible love affair, and her time as a student who fought to stand out amongst her male peers. The author also showed the dynamics of a married woman with her husband, though Mrs. Ramsay's story.
An air of mystery hangs around since the first page itself. The story grips you and puts you under a spell of lyrical writing and a picturesque setting. I loved how the author explores the intricacies of a young woman in love and a woman in a man's world trying to make a name for herself. Even though the mystery aspect of the story is not the driving factor of the plot, Lily's adamancy to unearth the mystery surrounding Mrs. Ramsay's death, highlights Lily's sheer determination. Her relationship with Mrs. Ramsay as a mother-daughter bond stands out in the book as Lily reminisces about her dead mother, and Mrs. Ramsay in turn takes Lily under her wings.
At this point I'm running out of words. All I can say is that you need to read the book. It's not a light read exactly, you need to read every inch of this book, but I promise you are not going to be disappointed. This book is like a pleasant breeze, like an evening walk on the beach. It's meant to be enjoyed at its own pace.
Maggie Humm is an Emeritus Professor, University of East London, UK. An international Virginia Woolf scholar and the author/editor of fourteen books (the last three focused on Woolf and the arts), Humm is a former Co-Chair of the British Women’s Studies Association, founded the first full-time undergraduate UK Women’s Studies degree, and was a judge of the Fawcett Society book prize. To transition to creative writing, she earned a diploma in Creative Writing from the prestigious programme launched by the University of East Anglia in partnership with the Guardian, followed by mentorship with The Literary Consultancy. She contributed a programme note for the ‘Woolf Works’ ballet at the Royal Opera House and a catalogue essay for the major Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives, as well as speaking there at a conference.
Talland House is Humm’s debut novel. Shortlisted for the Impress and Fresher Fiction prizes (as Who Killed Mrs. Ramsay?) and Retreat West and Eyelands prizes, and longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish and Historical Writers’ Association / Sharpe Books Unpublished Novel Awards, Talland House is set for official release in August 2020 with She Writes Press.
She lives in London and is currently writing Rodin’s Mistress about the tumultuous love affair of the artists Gwen John and Rodin.
I received a copy of the book in exchange of an honest and unbiased review