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The Mad Women's Ball by Victoria Mas

I think all women get shivers when they hear the name Salpetriere Asylum. From the beginning a gunpowder factory, which in mid-17th century turned into a hospice for poor women who were disabled, mentally ill or epileptic. With time it was turned into a prison where they put women they wanted to get rid off, mostly female outcasts. Later on anyone could put a woman there, if they thought she was suffering from hysteria or showing signs of strange behaviours. Victoria Mas has written a horrifying story of one woman who was put to the asylum by her father. His reason? She should see spirits.

"The Salpetriere Asylum: Paris, 1885. Dr. Charcot holds all of Paris in thrall with his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad and cast out from society. But the truth is much more complicated—these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives, those who have lost something precious, wayward daughters, or girls born from adulterous relationships. For Parisian society, the highlight of the year is the Lenten ball—the Madwomen’s Ball—when the great and good come to gawk at the patients of the Salpetriere dressed up in their finery for one night only. For the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

Genevieve is a senior nurse. After the childhood death of her sister Blandine, she shunned religion and placed her faith in both the celebrated psychiatrist Dr. Charcot and science. But everything begins to change when she meets Eugenie—the 19-year-old daughter of a bourgeois family that has locked her away in the asylum. Because Eugenie has a secret: she sees spirits. Inspired by the scandalous, banned work that all of Paris is talking about, The Book of Spirits, Eugenie is determined to escape from the asylum—and the bonds of her gender—and seek out those who will believe in her. And for that she will need Genevieve's help".

A fascinating story and an insight into the world of an asylum. There we meet women who are crazy, but also women who found refuge within the walls. The story of Eugenie and Genevieve is one of professional nurse against an inmate that has to be treated according to the rule. And Genevieve lives by the rules, this is her protection against the world, and her private sorrows. But Eugenie opens up her frozen heart, and before Genevieve know it, she is on the road to a very different life.

Both Genevieve and Eugenie are two well-defined characters. You feel their will to do something with their lives, although it looks different for the two women. They both live with the realisation that as a woman you cannot control your life.

Victoria Mas' story is guiding us through the various conflicts of these women's lives in a steady pace. At the back of our mind, a thought of disaster is lingering, and it is not until the very end that we get the answers to our fears. An excellent novel, with well describing Paris and the asylum in the 18th century. A twist in the end makes this book and even better read.

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