In 2001 the skeleton of a woman was found in woodland at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. The hospital checked all of its patient records, DNA tests were carried out and forensic specialists built a reconstruction of her face to be used in public appeals. Despite all of this, the woman has never been identified, and her remains were put into storage, labelled Madame Victoria.
The investigation has stalled. The case has been assigned to a forensic anthropologist and crime novel celebrity*, who runs new tests on the skeleton and finds that Madame Victoria was a Caucasian woman of about fifty suffering from osteoporosis and arthritis-ridden joints but showing no signs of a violent death.
Catherine Leroux has written twelve stories, each of which imagines a different route to the eventual death of Madame Victoria in the woods. She has said in interviews that she was inspired less by the fact that the woman was found, but by the great efforts that the authorities took to identify her. She has said that she intended each chapter as a tribute, and she never forgot that this was a person who actually existed. And that she hopes Madame Victoria is eventually identified.
I enjoyed this book very much. In any selection of stories there some stronger than others, and this is no exception, though I felt that most of the tales here tended to the strong side.
I think it works as a concept because each of the stories is very different – Leroux has tried several genres including historical fiction, fantasy and sci-fi. Some common elements and references pop up in several of the stories but it’s very subtly done and I only really picked it up in the later ones. I wonder if I read it again whether I would find more?
In an interview about the book in the Montreal Gazette, Leroux said that in writing about a completely anonymous woman she found herself examining how women “were, and are, erased, in so many ways.”
This was a read for Twenty Books of Summer, and I highly recommend it if you want to try something a bit different, or you are looking for works by women in translation. Or, you know, both.
*Note – I’m assuming this is a reference to Kathy Reichs