Madame Victoria is an imaginative, haunting, and insightful examination of the lives of women.
Shortly after the millennium, a skeleton is discovered on the grounds of Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. It is identified as having belonged to a woman fiftyish, Caucasian, and who died nonviolently. The unclaimed skeleton is dubbed Madame Victoria. A series of vignettes follows, conjuring Victoria in a variety imagined lives.
The earliest chapters of the book are its most literal. As an unwed mother who slips into permanent psychosis after her infant dies, an acerbic and very alcoholic newswoman who smashes the glass ceiling, and a foster-home teen who reneges on a suicide pact, Victoria is achingly real and believable.
As Victoria’s stories continue to unspool, they drift farther from reality, taking shape as metaphors or merging reality with elements of horror and science fiction. The tale of a runaway Mormon wife beset by too many children reaches new heights of honesty, capturing moments of maternal disgust before demonic children take their revenge.
A chapter that transforms Victoria into a nineteenth-century slave impedes the delicate time frame that holds the stories together; a tale that thrusts Victoria into the male body of a cross-dressing spy is too gimmicky to be impactful. The book bounces back to life with a piece that makes Victoria a twenty-fifth-century megacelebrity who emerges in present-day Montreal, only to live her life as a bag lady.
Plausible realities deftly portray the interior lives and unspoken tragedies of ordinary women. Succinct, piercing insights are scattered along the trails of each story; they are a pleasure. A fine translation by Lazer Lederhendler preserves the distinct flavor of the book’s Canadian French.
Absorbing and often poignant, Madame Victoria is an achievement, both as a mystery about the missing identity of one woman and in its portrayal of women’s lives more broadly.
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