Review: City of Incurable Women

At just 128 pages, Maud Casey's compelling City of Incurable Women--ostensibly a historical novel featuring 19th-century French women institutionalized with diagnoses of hysteria--might invite an expeditious single-sitting read. That sparseness obscures its intricate density: hardly straightforward narrative, City of Incurable Women is a fascinating, multi-layered interaction between Casey's pithy words on the page and history's virtual elision of the titular "incurable women." Readers may well want side-by-side access to sources of additional information for a more satisfying, enhanced experience.  

In 19th-century Paris, the Salpêtrière hospital was the domain of Jean-Martin Charcot, often called "The Father of Neurology." Casey opens her first chapter with a Charcot quote, almost as a warning epigraph: "The great asylum... contains a population of over 5,000 people, including a great number called incurables.... In other words, we are in possession of a kind of living pathological museum, the resources of which are considerable." Charcot's "Tuesday Lessons," a weekly public neurological demonstration displaying actual patients, were famed events. Four of Charcot's "best girls" take space here by name: "delicious" Augustine, committed at 15; stigmatic Louise, who bled every Friday; abandoned and abused Geneviève, who cut off her own left nipple; and "queen" Blanche, whose "death of [her] diagnosis" mysteriously (or not) coincided with Charcot's own passing.

These best girls garnered special treatment, "lifted up out of the crowd and slipped between clean sheets in a private room where there are windows to open and close, and quiet to hear their thoughts." Everyone else constituted "the unbest," neglected as "the left-behind crowd, a jumble of limbs, a tangle of unwashed hair, the smell of dirt in the creases of the backs of knees, the damp rust smell of blood when we bleed, though some of us never begin."

As if insisting on solidarity, Casey efficaciously adapts her vocabulary to "we," "you," "I," adamantly claiming humanity for silenced voices. "The doctors' stories have endings," Geneviève shrewdly comments, "My stories never finish," nor can they ever be complete since these stories exist only as other people's observations, research, records--and predominantly filtered through a limited, centuries-old male gaze. Casey points in her "Notes and Credits" to "inventions" and "rough translation," from which she persuasively resurrects Charcot's "incurable women": "In the before, we were daughters, daughters of all sorts of people who themselves were the sons and daughters of all sorts of people, and so on. Sometimes an I breaks free." With acute empathy, Casey is here as witness and scribe. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Shelf Talker: Maud Casey masterfully magnifies the stories of "incurable" women in Paris's 19th-century Salpêtrière hospital.

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