Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Madame Victoria

Madame Victoria / Catherine Leroux
trans. from the French by Lazer Lederhendler
Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, c2018.
206 p.

I have been meaning to read this for a year, but finally settled down with it last week and read it in just over a day. It's fascinating -- inspired by the real life 2001 discovery of a woman's skeleton in the woods above Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital, a woman who has never been identified, this book then takes on the project of giving "Madame Victoria" a history, a life behind the remains.

She creates 12 potential lives for Victoria, all very different. They start out in a likely way, with women who could conceivably be the right age for the skeleton, and have reasonable trajectories that might have ended with a skeleton in the woods. But the stories quickly get stranger and stranger, leaking into the past and into stories that are eerie and fanciful. Finally we even get Victoria the time traveller from the future, who never returns to her origins. 

Interspersed with these twelve lives are a few interactions with the detective on the case, and the nurse who originally found the bones. They bring you back to the framing story, tying all the varying threads together again. I found that this structure worked really well, and the book flowed no matter how different the life-stories were. 

The writing style is literary and graceful, although there is also a lot of energy in it, and a deep care for all the characters. You can feel that each Victoria is being developed as a person, with complexity and a full character; some more than others, but each feels like a person. 

I thought the concept could either turn out very badly, feeling forced, or, it could create something unusual and intriguing. Fortunately, I found it to be the latter. This book really made me think, bringing out a wide range of women's experience and putting difficult realities in view. There was also some lightness and fanciful storytelling mixed in, and I enjoyed the variety while finding that the tone of the book was consistent and all hung together nicely. This was a satisfying read, and I'm glad I finally got to it!


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