THE PLOT: ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ by Victoria Mas (translated by Frank Wynne) is literary fiction about three women in the Salpêtrière Asylum in Paris, 1885. Based on an historical event; once a year the asylum hosted a ball where the bourgeois mixed with women cast out of society. Geneviève is a senior nurse who places her faith in the institution. She often cares for Louise, a beautiful young patient who is the star of the asylum’s hypnotism displays. But when Geneviève meets Eugénie, the daughter of a bourgeois family, their fates will collide on the night of the Mad Women’s Ball.
RATING: This was a good book but it didn’t set my world on fire so I’m giving it three and a half stars. Firstly, I absolutely adore the premise. It’s genius to base a novel on this bizarre and disturbing historical event, which was prized by the Parisian elite until the early twentieth century. However, my reading experience felt slow for a book of only 200 pages. The dense prose and heavy narratorial voice meant the pace dragged. Finally, I think the theme of a patriarchal society seeking to silence women was explored well but, given how explicitly feminist this book is, I’m very surprised they didn’t use a woman-identifying translator.
GOOD BITS: I was most invested in Eugénie’s sections. This is partly because Eugénie was active outside of the asylum and it felt like she had a lot of agency. Additionally, the reader gets the most details about her life and the novel is set up for you to sympathise with her. But that’s not to take away from the other characters because all of the women were well drawn, with clear character arcs. Even the side characters, such as Therese, were rounded. As it’s only a short book, I felt it was well-plotted and there are clear story beats that tie together nicely.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The narrator’s voice was very heavy and it often felt like the author stating her own opinions rather than them being integrated into the narrative and characters. Additionally, the novel is very descriptive so I waded through a lot of dense prose. My big picture criticism – tying these both together – is that the whole novel felt like it was at the same pitch (or oscillating in a tight range). Even though there were good plot points, there weren’t enough emotional highs and lows for my taste and it didn’t get under my skin.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of gothic, feminist fiction. The atmosphere and overall theme are reminiscent of ‘The Mercies’ by Kiran Millwood-Hargrave. I’m glad I picked this for #WomenInTranslation month and would encourage any historical fiction lovers interested in translated fiction to give it a go.
Thank you to Penguin Books UK for my #gifted copy. The English translation of ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ is available to buy now.