Montreal-based author Catherine Leroux was shortlisted for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for the English translation of her second novel, The Party Wall. Leroux returns with a new novel in translation (once again in collaboration with Lazer Lederhendler, who won a Governor General’s Literary Award for his translation of The Party Wall). Brimming with the fantastic and strange, Madame Victoria details a succession of possible alternate histories of a real-life unidentified skeleton discovered near Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital in 2001. In the process, Leroux plumbs the intricacies of what it means to be female, invisible, and forgotten in the modern world.
The novel is structured as 12 stories anchored by an introduction featuring Germain Léon, a nurse who stumbles across the anonymous woman’s skull while the police are excavating the corpse. He cannot resist imagining what might have befallen this unknown woman, who was arbitrarily assigned the name Victoria. Over the course of the book, we are presented with a dozen iterations of Madame Victoria: young mother, alcoholic, time traveller from six centuries into the future, and others. Every version involves a variation of a world in which women fight to be seen and are all too often swallowed up, ignored, or made to blend into the background.
Leroux is a fearless writer who invokes fable with sure-footed confidence. The novel is replete with transformations: a career-focused woman working her way up the ranks of a prominent Montreal newspaper while simultaneously sinking into alcoholism; a woman afflicted with skin allergies brought on by social contact feels her mind expand while her body destructs. In every instance, a movement toward the strange or uncanny draws the various Victorias deeper into the world around them – a pull of otherworldliness that paradoxically anchors each woman in the ordinary and grim realities of her existence. “She’ll become another kind of creature, a bird or possibly a dragon fly, something light that eats almost nothing, that buzzes over the surface of the world and rests even in mid-flight. The universe is shrinking by the minute.”
The novel is rich with recurring symbols: characters in numerous stories have one green eye and one blue, while one of the Victorias is – by dint of a scientific experiment – literally made invisible by a male doctor. A number of the Victorias are defined as arrows pointing north. North to what isn’t exactly clear, but that’s part of the magic – we don’t know what the sum of things might be, but the pieces are so lovingly and carefully arranged it doesn’t matter.
From Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women through women who climb the corporate ladder only to find themselves supplanted by younger, more beautiful female bodies, the predicament of being simultaneously invisible and ever-present pulses throughout the book. The end result is a novel that packs a star’s density of rage and love into its pages, a delicate and unflinching look at the impossibilities of womanhood that is nothing short of incandescent. A testament to the power of fable and myth, Madame Victoria is a triumphant feat of storytelling.