It was struggle, loss and longing that propelled the narrative forward ...
- Louisa Treger, Madwoman
Although this story is based on biographical facts of Nellie Bly’s life, the author stresses from the beginning that we are reading a work of fiction. The gaps in the record have been filled with Treger’s invention and this blend of fact and fiction is seamlessly woven into a fab read. Although a compelling character in real life it is Treger’s yarn-spinning skill that gets us rushing through the book.
In the prologue we find ourselves shackled to Nellie on the way to Blackwell’s Island, ‘a place of criminals, paupers, the sick and the insane’ with a guard warning us ‘you’ll never get out.’ Despite this prophecy, Nellie and the reader are comforted by the fact that ‘storytelling would get her through this.’ We’re hooked immediately, needing to know how this will end but Chapter One throws us back in time to her childhood.
After a taste of what’s to come, we find out how she got there; we’re with Nellie as she has the dawning realisation of the injustices of the world, discovers the fetters of her femininity. We share her struggles as she rallies against the differences between the opportunities available for her and the ones her brothers are given. At each stage we get glimpses of Nellie’s strong fighting spirit and how she battles against the usual role of women at that time.
Nellie is, however, encouraged by her father to follow her dreams. At eleven he gives her a journal and fountain pen, bucking against the Victorian idea that ‘too much imagination can play havoc with a young girl’s mind.’ She has an unflinching drive to tell her story and we share her frustrations at the limited options available to her through her formative years before her story continues back on Blackwell’s Island.
The book is about storytelling. We follow Nellie in her struggle to create her own story as a woman in a male-dominated world. The Nellie we read about is part fiction, part fact and is a character you warm to instantly. She recognises the untold stories in the world, and with her indomitable strength of spirit she forges a way to tell them, getting them an audience while helping the other protagonists ultimately find their own voices too.
About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is a shopgirl and a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. https://linktr.ee/noodlebubble
You can read more about Madwoman by Louisa Treger, as well as an excerpt from the novel, on Creative Writing at Leicester here.