An unnerving series of portraits capturing the possible lives of a woman whose remains were discovered near a Montreal hospital in 2001.
When a skeleton was found in the woods surrounding the crumbling, old-fashioned Royal Victoria Hospital, it sparked a national fascination with its identity. Yet despite scientific tests that revealed surprisingly personal characteristics (they describe a middle-aged Caucasian woman with osteoporosis and “high cheekbones, faded features”) and a missing person hotline inundated with leads, “Victoria’s” identity remains unknown. Leroux constructs 12 starkly different possible lives for Victoria, fashioning portraits that are both intimately personal and bound to universal elements of mortality, physicality, and femaleness. In "Victoria Outside," a 16-year-old mother embarks on a haunting journey through Quebec City’s dark alleys and beyond after tragedy strikes. More closely tied to reality yet deeply nuanced, "Victoria Drinks" finds an ambitious woman rising ruthlessly through the ranks of a male-dominated newspaper company, fortified by Scotch, till her aging body rebels—spurring a dizzying meditation on the fragility of human ambition. Other stories evoke more abstract settings. A woman who’s outlasted the decimation of her tribe contemplates the brutal realities of survival in "Victoria Down." A shifting, volatile natural environment—melting ice caps, constantly migrating populations—takes center stage in "Victoria on the Horizon," as a woman struggles to exist in a world that appears to directly attack her body with acute, grotesque physical ailments. Though at first the accounts seem disconnected, the book picks up steam and builds to a complex and thought-provoking conclusion. Expansive and cleareyed, Leroux’s (The Party Wall, 2016) novel expertly probes fallible, achingly human characters to form a portrait of a lost woman and examine the fragile forces that underlie a life.
Gorgeously written, unsettling, and well worth the read.