1889, book review, Brooks Hansen, Buddhism, bureaucracy, canine investigator, death mask, famous case, historical fiction, literary fiction, morbid fixation, murder, mystery, mystery as biography, nineteen century, Paris, Seine, unorthodox detective
Review: The Unknown Woman of the Seine, by Brooks Hansen
Delphinium, 2021. 261 pp. $26
This much is true. Sometime during the late nineteenth century, a young woman drowned in the Seine, and the gypsum death mask created to memorialize her face became famous. What a face it was — serene, people said. Others spoke of her innocence, her beauty. The poet Rilke wrote of her deceptive smile and what knowledge might lie behind it. Artists studied the re-created face as a model; copies of her likeness could be found in Parisian studios and academies. Nabokov had a character write a poem about her. Camus, it was said, showed her off at parties. Man Ray photographed her.
To all, the dead woman’s mask represented a quality that touched them, so they invented her story, a biography, a mystery, and how she might have met her end. That background brings us to the current novel, beguiling, occasionally baffling, which offers a coherent explanation, as tense as any whodunit and as meticulously observed as any narrative of any kind.
Hansen’s story begins with a scene in a morgue, November 1889, after the unknown woman’s body has been on display for a month — yes, they did that, apparently — after which the mask maker plies his craft. It’s a prologue, therefore unfortunate by nature, and a bit confusing, at that. But Hansen skillfully rewinds the intrigue from there, chiefly through the eyes of Émile Brassard, a gendarme who’s had a checkered career, partly because his brilliance upsets people, a circumstance the author understates with deft hand.
In fact, if any single word describes The Unknown Woman of the Seine, it’s understated. I admire novels in which nothing is predictable, yet whose randomness derives entirely from characters with opposing goals (not authorial convenience). I also admire those novels that ask me to draw inferences rather than explain themselves, which involves me in the narrative and lets me meet the story halfway, rather than have it spooned into my mouth.
That said, Hansen demands a lot of his readers, and I’m not always up to it. A dose of bewilderment works wonders, though, for you share Brassard’s curiosity and puzzlement. He first sees the woman in the woods far from Paris, while she’s burying a corpse — and none too deep, because subsequently, the wolves get to it easily. Brassard might arrest her, but he can’t, because he’s applying to be reinstated in the gendarmerie after military service in Indochina, so he’s not officially on duty. Moreover, he’s traveling to his reinstatement hearing, so his time isn’t his own.
Consequently, he must walk a tightrope, following the woman while covering his tracks from both the participants and his superiors. Hansen does a marvelous job integrating his hero’s employment troubles with the mores and politics of the time, folding that into the detective’s quest to figure out who the woman is and why she was burying the dead man. If she killed him, as is likely, Brassard assumes there are extenuating circumstances, and he wants to know the story. So do you.
However, he, and the reader, must have infinite patience before things start to make sense. Also requiring patience are references to images of Buddhist philosophy, which go above my head, and which seem — to me, at least — to have little relation to the story. No doubt I missed something.
But the reader who can stick it out will be well rewarded, especially those who like dogs — Brassard’s is quite the canine investigator, perhaps a little too good to be true, yet their relationship is marvelous. The journey the narrative follows could not be more beautifully rendered, whether Brassard’s thoughts, the landscape, or the city of Paris, particularly the presence of that newly built tower, Eiffel’s monstrosity, as some think of it.
Here, the detective considers his reinstatement, as variable and hard to fathom as the heavens themselves:
If the sun said, All is well, all will turn out in due time, the moon knew better. The moon said, Beware. The moon shed light on the darker and more difficult truths, and he could feel them this evening as he wrote — the low clouds of doubt drifting into his brain, or looking like wolves just behind the tree line, grinning and shimmering with the knowledge that his confidence was without ground; he was fooling himself; the matter of his reinstatement is not nearly as simple or assured as he liked to think.… There were men out there who doubted him, and who made it their business to undermine him.
Such magnificent writing rolls easily into your mind, creating inner life, physical setting, and tension, all at once. The narrative’s final pages lack the clarity I would have liked, but the essentials are there. The manner in which Brassard — and Hansen — pull together the evidence makes for a thoroughly satisfying and remarkable tale of mystery.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.