Published: June 9th 2022
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing UK
Genre: Historical Fiction, Biographical Fiction
Format: Hardcover, Kindle, Audiobook
Welcome to my review for this outstanding and remarkable novel. Thank you Louisa Trager and Bloomsbury for the gifted proof.
In 1887 young Nellie Bly sets out for New York and a career in journalism, determined to make her way as a serious reporter, whatever that may take.
But life in the city is tougher than she imagined. Down to her last dime and desperate to prove her worth, she comes up with a dangerous plan: to fake insanity and have herself committed to the asylum that looms on Blackwell’s Island. There, she will work undercover to document – and expose – the wretched conditions faced by the patients.
But when the asylum door swings shut behind her, she finds herself in a place of horrors, governed by a harshness and cruelty she could never have imagined. Cold, isolated and starving, her days of terror reawaken the traumatic events of her childhood. She entered the asylum of her own free will – but will she ever get out?
An extraordinary portrait of a woman way ahead of her time, Madwoman is the story of a quest for the truth that changed the world.
‘Madwoman is one of the best, a magnificent portrayal of Nelly Bly in all her journalistic integrity and daring’ New York Journal of Books
“Welcome to Blackwell’s Island. Once you get in here, you’ll never get out.”
Madwoman is a powerful, haunting and remarkable story about an unforgettable young woman. It’s 1887 and 19-year-old Nelly Bly has come to New York to try and make her name as a journalist, something unheard of for women at the time. In order to secure her dream job she pitches a daring idea: faking insanity to get herself committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island to go undercover and unearth the truth behind the rumours of mistreatment and expose them once and for all. But Nelly is unprepared for the horrors that lay in store and begins to wonder if she will ever escape the living hell she put herself in.
I’d heard the name Nelly Bly but knew nothing more about the woman at the heart of this story. But as soon as I read the synopsis and saw the striking cover I knew I needed to read this book. I needed to know what kind of woman would willingly get herself committed to an asylum in the nineteenth century and just what did she experience while there?
“Nellie shivered and gritted her teeth. She was going to sleep with madwomen, eat with them, be considered one of them. Anything could happen, anything at all.”
Louisa Trager has crafted a mesmerising novel full of evocative imagery and prose that made me see and feel everything that was on the page as vividly as if I were experiencing it myself. She brings the characters and places to life so clearly that you’d believe they were right in front of you. She tears your heart apart and puts it back together as you laugh, cry, rage, despair and feel absolute terror.
But it isn’t just her prose and imagery that makes you feel all of this, it is the deep connection she forges between the reader and Nelly that makes this story so deeply moving. Nelly is a fascinating and compelling character. As a young girl she gives us glimpses of the trailblazer she will become and little Nelly – or Pinks as she is then known – is a fierce and outspoken tomboy who doesn’t fit in and wants much more than to just be somebody’s wife. It helps us understand her actions as an adult such as why she is so determined to be independent and has her sights set on succeeding in what was then considered a man’s profession. Ms. Trager really gets inside Nelly’s mind, body and soul, allowing the reader to walk in her shoes and making our emotions mirror hers.
“Looking into her eyes, Nellie saw that there was a grief only beheld in lunatic asylums, a grief so deep and black that its victim was submerged beyond reach, far more wretched than a criminal.”
I don’t think it will be a surprise that where this story shines brightest is in the darkest of places. Nelly’s time in the asylum is harrowing, heartbreaking and raw. Blackwells is a bleak, gloomy place. A place of horror, degradation, humiliation and fear. A place where those charged with looking after the patients either give inadequate care or delight in doling out the most cruel and inhumane treatments they can think of. This was a time where women could be deemed insane for simply falling in or out of love or having the wrong opinion, and once you were behind that locked door you were usually left to rot. It was a dangerous and terrifying time to be a woman. Especially if you rebelled against the oppressive patriarchal system. The atmosphere on every page during Nelly’s time in the asylum is harsh and unforgiving. You wonder how anyone can survive such torture. But there is humanity and true strength alongside all of the darkness that is truly moving. The women fighting to survive beside Nelly each day are memorable and compelling and I especially enjoyed her friendship with Sofia. I was completely lost in Nelly’s world during this section of the book, reading most furiously and consumed by all she was going through.
An extraordinary story that is one of my top books of the year, I can’t recommend Madwoman enough.
MEET THE AUTHOR:
Louisa Treger has worked as a classical violinist. She studied at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. Treger subsequently turned to literature, gaining a First Class degree and a Ph.D. in English at University College London, where she focused on early 20th century women’s writing and was awarded the West Scholarship and the Rosa Morison Scholarship “for distinguished work in the study of English Language and Literature.” The Lodger was published in 2014, The Dragon Lady in 2019 and she is currently working on her third novel.
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Thanks for reading Bibliophiles 😊 Emma xxxx
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One reply on “REIVEW: Madwoman by Louisa Treger”
Sounds pretty good. I’ve read a few books about her, and I know that before she went into Blackwell’s she went “under cover” at some factories and (what we’d call today) sweat shops. She was an investigative reporter long before that was a thing.
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