cover image The Mad Women’s Ball

The Mad Women’s Ball

Victoria Mas, trans. from the French by Frank Wynne. Overlook, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4197-5759-4

French writer Mas debuts with a cinematic gothic story—soon to be a feature film—set in an abusive and exploitive 19th-century Parisian asylum. La Salpêtrière is inhabited almost entirely by women and girls whose male relatives have had them committed for hysteria. As Mas reveals, most of these women are survivors of rape or sexual abuse, but as far as the average Parisian is concerned, the women are grotesque and most likely dangerous. Set in 1885, during the weeks leading up to the hospital’s annual costume ball, at which the bourgeoisie can indulge their voyeuristic inclinations and rub elbows with the “mad women,” Mas’s novel alternates among the perspectives of three characters. Louise fantasizes about becoming charismatic Dr. Charcot’s next celebrity patient and about marrying a junior doctor; Eugénie is a bourgeois young woman who claims to see visions of the dead; and Geneviève is a long-time Salpêtrière nurse whose unwavering loyalty to her employer begins to falter as events unfold. Mas elegantly blends feminist history and spiritualism, and poignantly demonstrates how the hospital is both prison and refuge for its residents, as Geneviève simultaneously grows disillusioned and empowered. Mas’s dark tale will have readers transfixed. (Sept.)