Charlotte has always known she is different. Where other young women see their destiny in marriage and motherhood, the reclusive Charlotte wants only to work with her father in his stationery business; perhaps even run it herself one day. Then Flora Dalton bursts through the shop door and into Charlotte’s life—and a new world of baffling desires and possibilities seems to open up to her.
But Melbourne society of the 1890s is not built to embrace unorthodoxy. When tragedy strikes and Charlotte is unmoored by grief, she finds herself admitted to Kew Lunatic Asylum ‘for her own safety’.
There she learns that women enter the big white house on the hill for many reasons, not all of them to do with lunacy. That her capacity for love, loyalty and friendship is greater than she had ever understood. And that it will take all of these things—along with an unexpected talent for guile—to extract herself from the care of men and make her way back to her heart’s desires.
Set in 1890s Melbourne, Tara Calaby’s debut novel House of Longing is set within the walls of the Kew Asylum, which opened in 1872 and housed people with mental illness. Tara’s novel pivots around a same-sex romantic love story but is also a tale of bravery amidst the terrible treatment that women were experiencing in the asylum.
We meet Charlotte shortly before she experiences two life-changing moments –she meets and falls in love with the beautiful doctor’s daughter Flora, and Charlotte’s father dies unexpectedly. The grief triggers a breakdown that ends with Charlotte inside Kew Asylum. There, she meets a large group of incredible other women, all battling their own demons and trying their best to survive.
“The fourth evening was the coolest yet. The two of them drew in close to the fire for warmth, and Flora burrowed into Charlotte’s side in such a way that Charlotte couldn’t help but wrap an arm around her.”
The story feels like it has two phases – the first, following Charlotte and Flora’s love story, and Charlotte’s devastation at the passing of her father; the second, Charlotte’s journey in the asylum, and teaming up with the other patients when they start to experience abuse and neglect at the hands of the staff. The second half is the strongest part of the story, and the pacing increases from here.
Tara is incredibly skilled at characterisation – there was a real threat of the women in the asylum merging together and feeling a bit same-same, but Tara crafted characters who all felt individual and unique. I could picture them all as I read them, and they each had their own distinct personalities.
“But Charlotte wasn’t listening. Her dreams had been swelling within her for months and she could no longer hold them inside her heart.”
House of Longing explores a woman’s expectation from society in the late 1800s. A same-sex relationship, which wouldn’t be accepted by those around them, and Charlotte wants to defy society’s pressure that she marry a man purely because that’s what other women do. She can survive, and run her father’s shop, on her own.
Admittedly, the pacing is a little slow to start. Once Charlotte was in the asylum, I was left wondering where the story was headed. The storyline slowed a little as we were introduced to the setting, but once Eliza is pushed down the steps the story starts to ramp up and the pacing maintains for the rest of the story.
“She was too exhausted to cry with any real passion, but tears seeped from her eyes as she brought her knees up towards her chest, and wrapped her arms around the scratchy skirt of the borrowed dress.”
An engaging romance and heartfelt tale of courage among disadvantaged women, Tara’s debut House of Longing is suitable for fans of historical fiction. Readership skews female, 25+
Thank you to the publishing company for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
House of Longing