Former biology teacher and award-winning French author Franck Bouysse writes like a classicalist. His first novel translated for Anglophones, Born of No Woman, has elements of both a Victorian novel and a Gothic tale. Set in a remote castle during the nineteenth century, the novel proffers an oppressed governess as protagonist, a distinct class system, and ominous moments which drive the plot forward.
One of the joys of Born is its narrative structure. Like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each chapter is narrated by a different person, allowing the reader to experience the story from each character’s perspective. Lara Vergnaud’s superb translation helps Bouysse present his chapters flawlessly. Up first is Father Gabriel, who narrates the confession of Génie, a nurse at a mental institution:
“My father, soon you will be asked to bless the body of a woman at the asylum. Under her dress. That’s where I hid them . . . the notebooks.”
These notebooks contain the life story of Rose, a governess for Master Charles. The reader learns – through these notebooks – that Rose’s broke father, Onésime, sold her to Charles because he was about to lose his farm. It is Bouysse’s prose that provides imagery of Charles through Rose’s first impression: “He was big and fat, clearly a little younger than [her] father” and very cruel. Rose knew she was in trouble when Charles demanded that “from now on you will call me master, and you will obey everything we say.”
Bouysse then displays his keen eye for the French countryside by familiarizing the reader with Charles’s estate—Les Forges.
“We came to a large high-ceilinged room with enormous beams with a single base, and in the back a fireplace where you could have roasted a whole cow. A long wooden table filled the room, big enough for at least thirty to eat without bumping elbows.”
Despite the opulence, Rose never sees a visitor, and this fact confuses her.
During their first meeting, Charles’s mother commands Rose to prepare the meals “to the letter” and on time. It does not take long for Rose to understand that she “ended up with a mad family, with the master who looked like an ogre, his ailing wife [Marie], who [she] had yet to see, and the old lady who seemed an awful lot like a devil.”
Although Rose was miserable, she did find an ally – and possible love interest – in Edmond, whose mother was a servant at Les Forges: “All night long I thought about Edmond, about his shoulders, about his eyes when they had ambled over me.” Edmond returned her amorous feelings: “She’s as beautiful as a sunny day. She has black eyes ringed with gold … When she looks at you, it’s impossible to turn away.” But he knows that “they’re going to make her life hard, him and the queen mother, that’s for sure.”
In one of the most cogent scenes of the novel, Rose’s and Edmond’s curiosity leads them to explore Marie’s bedroom: ”Edmond went closer [to the bed] holding the candle. He pulled back the sheet covering the head. He lowered the candle. [Rose] saw a face almost black, a little like old waxed wood.”They now understand why they have never met Charles’s wife.
Bouysse weaves in many tender passages about Edmond and Rose, but Edmond cannot stop Charles’s wicked ways. One night, he forces Rose to his bedroom where he grabs her “like a piece of meat on a chopping block” and violently rapes her. At this point, Rose understands “it was truly the devil who had hurt [her].” After the rape, a traumatized Rose runs for her life into the forest. When Charles locates her he brings her straight to the forge to brand her neck. Rose, in excruciating pain, explains the incident: “The smell was unbearable, the same as when you scald a pig’s skin to burn off the bristles.”
Saddled with unbearable guilt and a father’s intuition that her daughter is in danger, Onésime travels to Les Forges with enough money to bring his daughter home, but Charles does not negotiate: “You come to challenge me at my home … nobody touches what belongs to me.” Onésime continues to plead for his daughter, forcing the master to take a “deep breath and [smash] his forehead against the face offered to his fury … he persisted well after Onésime lost consciousness.”
Rose witnesses this event leaving her both devastated and sad. But life gets more complicated for her when she begins experiencing severe stomach pains. Charles’s mother has a plan, though – to lock Rose away in “a prison for the mad,” and an asylum where women also hide unwanted pregnancies. Shortly after her arrival, Rose gave birth, alone, cutting the cord with her teeth, but the devil returned and stole Rose’s baby just six days later.
Born of No Woman’s narrative structure places the reader inside the characters’ minds and keeps the book moving at a frenetic pace, but it is Bouysse’s imaginative prose that takes the reader inside Les Forges and inside the asylum to experience Rose’s life. A throwback of sorts, the uber-talented author tips his hat to his fellow countryman Alexandre Dumas in the denouement, which may surprise readers. One might wonder if Bouysse’s bookshelves are lined with Dumas, Charlotte Brontë, Daphne du Maurier, and Mary Shelley novels. If so, lucky for us.
Born of No Woman
Published October 26, 2021
Wayne Catan is a book critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Millions, On the Seawall, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Hemingway Review, and The Brooklyn Rail. He teaches English at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. --