Book Review for “City of Incurable Women” by Maud Casey.
Summary: ““Where are the hysterics, those magnificent women of former times?” wrote Jacques Lacan. Long history’s ghosts, marginalized and dispossessed due to their gender and class, they are reimagined by Maud Casey as complex, flesh-and-blood people with stories to tell. These linked, evocative prose portraits, accompanied by period photographs and medical documents both authentic and invented, poignantly restore the humanity to the nineteenth-century female psychiatric patients confined in Paris’s Salpêtrière hospital and reduced to specimens for study by the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his male colleagues.“
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, France – Paris; Other Categories: Novella, Short Stories, Biographical, Mental Illness.
Let me start by saying I’ve never read anything by Maud Casey before, and now that I have, I’m going to put her squarely on my radar, because, as they say, OMG but this woman can write! This is certainly one of the more poetic works of fiction I’ve read, and while that might be distracting for some readers, it was what kept me rapt from beginning to end. Mind you, this isn’t terribly straight-forward, and unless you remember that this is actually a collection of connected short stories, you’ll probably be confused by the whole thing. In fact, I can see that this might be so poetic, and seemingly so random, that many readers might just give up before they finish. I, however, am not one of those readers (which is probably to be expected as my favorite author is Michael Ondaatje, who also writes highly poetic books).
Each of the women in Casey’s stories (both real-life, and invented) have been diagnosed with what was then called hysteria, and they’ve all been treated, at one point or another, at this real-life mental institution in Paris. Of the things that inspired Casey to write these stories, one seems to be some actual photographs from that very hospital of several women, which are included in the book. Casey probably shows us these photos for several reasons. One being that most of these women don’t look terribly crazy. Another could be to document some of the abuses that these women underwent while there. I won’t go into detail but the contrast between those two things was both horrifying and tragic. Obviously, psychiatric medicine has come a very long way since then, but I’m convinced that the stigma of mental illness still remains.
With these connected stories, Casey allows each of these women to tell their own histories, through which we can decide if they’re really mentally ill, or just persecuted for being anything from being born illegitimate, or just struggling with trying to exist while suffering extreme hardships of poverty and/or abuse. I mean, we’ve heard of delirium stemming from a fever or hunger and the like, but back then doctors might have thought that someone who was delirious due to a physical problem was showing signs of mental instability or even deep-set insanity. A few of the women in Casey’s stories hint towards having been sexually abused, and the types of emotional and psychological tolls that can have on a young girl are well known today. But, back then, if a girl was abused and showed the wrong kinds of behaviors afterwards, they’d label her hysterical and, more often than not, lock her up – sometimes even to hide an unwanted pregnancy that resulted from that abuse.
Admittedly, although the prose here is stunningly beautiful, this is not a very pleasant or easy book to read. In fact, there were sections that were undeniably difficult to read, and that might put some of Casey’s readers off of this book. However, because of Casey’s incredible writing, I felt compelled to read on, even when something disgusted me. For all of this, I’m not sure who I would recommend this book to – probably those people who are interested in character portraits, and who like highly poetic stories. But I can still recommend it, and I think it deserves four out of five stars (reduced by one star due to the less than savory bits). If you have a strong stomach for such things, you should read this book!
Bellevue Literary Press released “City of Incurable Women” by Maud Casey on February 22, 2022 (on Kindle, but it will only be available in paperback as of March 22, 2022, although some sites say April 7, 2022). This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.