The Madwomen’s Ball by Victoria Mas
Translated from the French by Frank Wynn
Published by Doubleday, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Though the narrative arc follows a fairly familiar and predictable trajectory, this historical novel is an absorbing look at the treatment of women, particularly with regards to their mental health. Set in 19th century Paris, we follow the perspectives of two women: Genevieve, a senior nurse working in an asylum for troubled women, and Eugenie, a 19-year-old entrusted to the asylum for claiming to communicate with the dead. Initially at loggerheads, Eugenie gives Genevieve reason to believe her claims are perfectly sane, and the two form an unlikely alliance.
Chiefly, the novel is concerned with power, particularly in the context of gender and class. It comments on the ways in which society was structured to keep women “in their place”. This includes how asylums were often a front for removing anyone bold enough to defy the role ascribed to them, but also the ways men in healthcare exploited the women around them – both nurses and patients alike.
The prose is nice without feeling overwrought, and this helps to evoke the era while remaining highly readable. Still, certain threads felt underdeveloped, resulting in some untapped potential in both the plot and its themes. Though it may seem strange to say so, given it is in many ways the driving force of the novel, the supernatural element felt largely extraneous. The same, very real historical context could have been explored without it, and the notion of women being unfairly ignored, silenced, and incarcerated could arguably have been driven home with greater power had Mas chosen to go down a more accurate, believable route.
All that said, this was an enjoyable read with hints of the gothic that certainly appealed. While it could have delved deeper, it left me eager to see where Mas takes her writing next.