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Madame Zee

by Pearl Luke

The real-life story of the mysterious Madame Zee receives an intriguing treatment in this novel by Pearl Luke. What is curious is that the fictionalized details are almost more compelling than the actual facts, which are outlined in an afterword. While this speaks to Luke’s vibrant imagination, it also raises some interesting questions about the real life of this extraordinary woman.

The novel is based on the premise that Mabel Rowbotham (later known as Madame Zee) is a “seer.” What to Mabel is a shameful and burdensome talent leads her away from her rural Canadian roots toward a quest for self-discovery. The culmination of her journey is meeting Brother XII, a Spiritualist cult leader on Vancouver Island, where he has created a utopian community that he invites Mabel (now Madame Zee) to share as his consort. The all-too-human flaws of both Brother XII and the community itself soon result in chaos; Madame Zee must turn once again to a new life.

While true accounts of Madame Zee’s life tend to centre on her time with Brother XII, Luke focuses on what has led her heroine to that point and thus to her disillusionment. The majority of the novel is spent grounding Zee in childhood discoveries of her psychic abilities and her somewhat frantic quest to at some points deny her special talent, and at others to seek out people who share the gift and can help her understand it. The novel also attempts to question existing reports of Madame Zee’s rather cruel and erratic behaviour. At times Madame Zee has been labelled a temptress, a devil, and a “complete sadist,” but Luke chooses to offer an alternative view, providing us with psychological insights as to why she ended up the way she did.

A riveting, fast-moving tale, Madame Zee is ultimately a story about those who dare to be – or have no choice in being – different in our society, and the sometimes harsh consequences that follow.