The Mad Women’s Ball

Written by Frank Wynne (trans.) Victoria Mas
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Paris, 1885. In the Salpȇtrière Asylum, sixteen-year-old Louise is roused from sleep to go to a lecture, of which she will be the subject. As the patient of the renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, she is hypnotised until she goes into a hysterical spasm, for the instruction as well as edification of the doctor’s acolytes. In the spartan lodgings she has occupied since coming to Paris from the Auvergne, the austere Geneviève Gleizes, senior nurse at the asylum, writes letters to her long-dead sister. As preparations are underway in the asylum for the eagerly awaited Lenten costume ball, the nineteen-year-old Eugénie is brought to the asylum against her will: ‘the majority of the [female] patients have been committed by the men whose name they share.’

Geneviève recognises that her new patient is sane; the girl’s offence in the eyes of her bourgeois father is her ability to see the dead, an ability that convinces Geneviève to help her, though her doing so results in an immense personal reversion. Eugénie, put in solitary confinement, behaves initially as a lunatic is expected to behave, screaming, and smashing things; she wants to escape not just the asylum but also the restrictions of her earlier life. By contrast, the ageing Thérèse, a former prostitute, placidly knits for her younger companions. When told she is cured and can leave, she takes steps to ensure she never will, as for her the walls of the Salpȇtrière provide asylum in the truest sense of the term.

The enclosed world of the hospital, its corridors, its gardens, its stultifying routines, and the absolute power of its medical staff are vividly evoked in Mas’s first novel, through Frank Wynne’s elegant translation.