Book review: House of Longing, Tara Calaby

An historical fiction that navigates the world of women in Victorian asylums.

House of Longing explores the roles of women in colonial Australia, as Charlotte Ross, a young woman unlike other women around her, helps her father in his stationery shop. She knows her destiny will be different – but she doesn’t know how different until she meets Flora Dalton, and her world changes.

The bulk of the book is set in the Kew Lunatic Asylum, in suburban Melbourne, where those who don’t adhere to the conservative ideas about how women should act end up. In this novel, the world is shown as openly hostile to those who don’t conform, but there is a beauty in the way Charlotte and the other characters challenge this right from the beginning. 

Charlotte and Flora’s love for each other is clear from the early chapters, but nobody in the Asylum knows of Charlotte’s desires for women – the backdrop of the novel clearly indicates that it is something that respectable people don’t think or talk about, let alone become involved in.

House of Longing explores how its characters – across all classes and supposed illnesses – grow and accept themselves. It’s a story not just about Charlotte and Flora, but also about Eliza, Mary and all the others living in the institution. Yet these women are not powerless – they are the driving voices of the novel and push it along. Calaby is presently doing her PhD on the social worlds of women in Victorian lunatic asylums and this research has obviously fed into her fiction. 

The dialogue for each character is unique – even where similar words and turns of phrases are used, each voice stands out. The use of dialogue in the book’s exploration of life pre-asylum as well as the women’s current circumstances indicate the distinct class divide present in 1890s Melbourne. 

The shift in language to ableist terms is a little unsettling to read, but understandable considering the setting. It does help to put things in context – that in the 1890s, certain terms and beliefs, treatments, and segregation policies were acceptable in society.

Enabling the women to have some agency despite their straitened conditions is one of the standout aspects of the novel. The romance is also written well – not too over the top and not too stereotypical, allowing Charlotte and Flora to grapple with what they want as opposed to what society expects of them.

Read: Book review: Blackwater, Jacqueline Ross

Written through a female lens of empowerment, at its heart House of Longing is about accepting who you are and finding ways to live while working to support the changes you can make.

House of Longing, Tara Calaby
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922790286
Format: Paperback
Pages: 416
Release date: 30 May 2023
RRP: $32.99

Ashleigh is a book reviewer at her website The BookMuse, and is involved in her local CBCA sub-branch. She has had items published in Good Reading Magazine, Facts and Fiction and Grapeshot, the Macquarie University student magazine. She has also worked with the ABC for International Day of Persons with a Disability in 2022.