Title : The Mad Women’s Ball
Author : Victoria Mas
Publisher : Penguin Random House
Pages : 224
Genre : Historical Fiction
The Salpetriere Asylum: Paris, 1885. Dr. Charcot holds all of Paris in thrall with his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad and cast out from society. But the truth is much more complicated—these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives, those who have lost something precious, wayward daughters, or girls born from adulterous relationships. For Parisian society, the highlight of the year is the Lenten ball—the Madwomen’s Ball—when the great and good come to gawk at the patients of the Salpetriere dressed up in their finery for one night only. For the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.
Genevieve is a senior nurse. After the childhood death of her sister Blandine, she shunned religion and placed her faith in both the celebrated psychiatrist Dr. Charcot and science. But everything begins to change when she meets Eugenie—the 19-year-old daughter of a bourgeois family that has locked her away in the asylum. Because Eugenie has a secret: she sees spirits. Inspired by the scandalous, banned work that all of Paris is talking about, The Book of Spirits, Eugenie is determined to escape from the asylum—and the bonds of her gender—and seek out those who will believe in her. And for that she will need Genevieve’s help . . .
I had no idea what was I getting myself into, but somehow I knew if I took a plunge, I wouldn’t be disappointed. And oh well, I wasn’t!
First of all, I haven’t picked up or curated a tbr for Spooktober but somehow whatever I’m reading is aligning with it. I had no idea how gothic this one would be, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.
The plot is centred around women in a mad house called the Salpêtrière.
It’s supposedly an asylum, but it’s more like an abode for women who have been discarded by the patriarchy. It’s 19th Century France, and men dominance is ever so ripe around this time.
Genevieve and Eugenie are the two main characters, but every woman in here is a protagonist by her own right. Be it Louise, who still battles with her traumatic past or Thérèse who desperately depends on this “asylum” for her existence.
Some of the characters in this book are based on real life people. Like there was indeed a famous neurologist called Dr. Charcot and his patient Louise Augustine Gleizes whom he experimented on. And there was really a Salpêtrière. I think there still is one.
The way Victoria Mas has fictionalised 19th Century France with real events and characters in the book is quite vivid and has been portrayed from an omniscient point of view.
My favourite character was definitely Eugenie but I admired each and every one of the Salpêtrière women. The hurt and betrayal that she faces was really uncalled for and unbearable.
I wish this story had gone on a little longer. It’s a short novel but it made a huge impact. I can’t imagine the pain and despair the women must have felt. The use of their bodies for medical purpose without their conscious consent, the way they were treated, the unsafe environment, everything felt so wrong and outrageous. I really wanted a more orchestrated climax where every opressor is given his/her due, but I guess it was too inclined towards reality to construct such a fable that does not (rather cannot) exist in real world.