by Catherine Leroux
She is the woman I had forgotten, that left too soon, that we hoped never to run into again. The one we’ve been searching for for years. It’s for her that we always keep the porch light on now, and no longer turn off our phones, our headlights, our heads. That’s her, that’s Madame Victoria.
In her most recent work, author Catherine Leroux shines a bright light on a true-life mystery. In 2001, the body of a woman was found outside the Royal Victoria Hospital, but her death remains steeped in mystery. Who was she and how did she get there? Her body was never claimed or identified. In Madame Victoria, Leroux draws from this event to explore a much larger question:
“How can someone vanish into thin air? How can an arrow never come down again?”
Much like a composer’s variations on a theme, Leroux presents us with twelve variations on the enigmatic Victoria. Each story is a portrait of the woman she might have been and the life she might have led. While each has its own voice and rhythm, their unavoidable and tragic ending ties them together, like a final shared note at the end of a harmony. At times dreamlike and surreal, at others painfully entrenched in reality, Leroux’s stories all carry an air of myth and fable. Whether she’s a wandering ghost, a ruthless businesswoman, or a mourning mother, Victoria feels like someone we know or once knew.
Canadian literary translator Lazer Lederhendler, whose translation of Leroux’s The Party Wall won the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, once again brings her work to life for English audiences. Leroux’s work is filled with striking metaphors and descriptions. Every sense is evoked, and I love the intimacy this creates between the reader and the work. A mother’s grief is “raw and prickly.” Two teenagers are “extended like javelins before the final throw.” A baby is “light and cold as winter coming back when everyone thought it was over.” These lines are gut-punchers. They surprise with their force. Certain symbols also repeat throughout the collection. The woods, the St. Lawrence River, and a loosened arrow appear and reappear between pages like echoes. In his translation, Lederhendler closely mirrors Leroux’s intellectual and poetic style. While the text can sometimes feel unusually wordy and long-winded in English—a language we tend to admire for its concision—it does capture Leroux’s voice and complements the fable-like quality of many of her stories.
Above all, Leroux’s work resonates. As a piece of CanLit, it specifically calls to mind the many unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across our country. But it can also be experienced in a broader sense. Victoria’s anonymity allows her to become a symbol. She can wear many faces. She can represent all those women who remain nameless: the invisible and the lost, the abandoned and forgotten. It speaks to those who might be looking for a mother or grandmother, a sister or daughter. “After all,” Leroux writes, “this could be anyone.”
Review by Megan Callahan