A powerful piece of historical fiction set in the women’s mental hospital of Salpêtrière, Paris, in the 1880s. Sometimes I felt it was too heavy on the history and was too straight-forward in the telling but the novel is certainly compelling and demonstrates the terrible abusive treatment of women who were locked up for being ‘hysterical’, for suffering from trauma inflicted by men or, in the case of a main character, for really being able to see spirits. I liked the spiritualism aspect although it might not be to the taste of some historical fiction readers.
The story follows the fates of a few women who are inmates of the hospital and also the matron (whose faith in the god-like male doctors begins to be shaken). Anticipation builds for the annual ball, when the ‘mad women’ dress up and dance before an audience who are both repelled and fascinated by the spectacle. The plot revolves around what will happen to the spiritualist, who has been committed to the asylum by her father, and whether the matron will help her to leave.
Although the book is quite short for an historical novel, it took me a few days to finish. The pace is unhurried and the content invites you to think carefully about what the hospital represents.
First published in 2019. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne for the 2021 edition.