The Mad Women's Ball – Victoria Mas (Doubleday, $35)
Reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books
Based on real events and real people, this novel tells the story of some of the women incarcerated in the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in the 19th century, put there by men for 'crimes' such as sadness or being the traumatised victim of an assault.
If a woman caused trouble, she could be deemed mad, and put away.
Geneviève is a senior nurse at Salpêtrière, upright and staid. The inmates find her intimidating, but rely on her for her dependability and black and white behaviour. Like the incarcerated women, Geneviève harbours a hurt, the death of her sister. Unlike those in her care, she is free to leave.
The mad women look forward to the yearly Lenten Ball, where they get to dress up and dance. It is their one moment of freedom and normality.
In reality, it is a spectacle for the wealthy who are thrilled by the opportunity to mingle with these unfortunate, fallen, wrecks of women. Of course, many of these women aren't mad at all — they are abused, traumatised or perhaps just have opinions of their own.
Eugénie is the overlooked, intelligent and lively daughter of a wealthy family. She has long been able to receive messages from the dead and is incarcerated within Salpêtrière by her father.
When she convinces Geneviève that her sister looks over her, Geneviève's ordered world is rocked.
The Mad Women's Ball tells the tale of a fascinating time in world history and absorbs the reader in the environment of Salpêtrière and the experiments of its famous neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot.
The women are dehumanised, used as performance pieces as the good doctor induces fits at his lectures, solely attended by men. The descriptions of these incidents are told starkly, and are all the more emotive for the reader because of it.
Victoria Mas evokes a time and place, creating vibrant fictional characters from real lives. It's a compelling read.