Title: These Good Hands
Author: Carol Bruneau
Publisher: Cormorant Books
Publication Date: April 1, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
Set in the early autumn of 1943, These Good Hands interweaves the biography of French sculptor Camille Claudel and the story of the nurse who cares for her during the final days of her thirty-year incarceration in France’s Montdevergues Asylum. Biographers have suggested that Claudel survived her long internment by writing letters, few of which left the asylum because of her strict sequestration; in Bruneau’s novel, these letters are reimagined in a series, penned to her younger self, the sculptor, popularly known as Rodin’s tragic mistress. They trace the trajectory of her career in Belle Époque Paris and her descent into the stigmatizing illness that destroyed it. The nurse’s story is revealed in her journal, which describes her labours and the ethical dilemma she eventually confronts. Through her letters, Camille relives the limits of her perseverance; through Camille’s journal, Nurse confronts limits of hers own: in the faith these women have in themselves, in the then-current advances in psychiatric medicine, and in a God whose existence is challenged by the war raging outside the enclosed world of the asylum.
These Good Hands tells the story of Camille Claudel, a young woman in WWII France, a lover, and an artist. Camille is everything a woman ought not to be in this era and she finds herself convicted into a mental institution, living out her final 30 years in the company of nurses, patients, and her own memories. Was Camille committed because she dared to chase her passions instead of submitting to the misogyny of her patriarchal society? Or was she a woman driven to madness by the rejection of everyone she’d ever loved and her struggle to succeed in a world where her art was admired, but not coveted because of its female creator?
Bruneau’s biographical, epistolary novel brings to light the life of a woman in war-era Europe, women who worked hard, but ultimately whose lives were not their own. Two characters’ stories compliment each other, taking turns in a kind of dialogue to tell their experiences as women, often at the mercy of others. Camille is the artist who never fit the mould of what a woman should be. Solange Poitier, Camille’s nurse at Montdevergues Asylum, meets the former artist as a patient in need of care and near the end of her life. Solange has been forced to make sacrifices of her own, giving up so much–sometimes not of her own choosing–to have her career and to be successful. Her choice to live her life as a single mother was taken from her, and so she redirects her path to nursing and caring for the mentally ill. Her life is ruled by the institution, her mannerism directed by the lessons she learned from the nuns who taught her. In forming a bond with the artist, she fights against the system to help Camille find the voice that’s been taken from her.
These women compliment each other and their stories are told in their own thoughts and by their own pens: Camille through letters and Solange in her own diary. They are both women who made/are making attempts to be independent and to pursue their passions. Even in “captivity,” Camille strains against her diagnosis to tell her story. She refuses to be silent. Solange, likewise, finds power in her words. Bruneau allows these characters to give themselves a voice, speaking out against the institution and those running it who wish for them to just do as their told. Though both remain in place, they are able to find freedom in their words. Camille inspires Solange to action, appealing to her compassionate nature. Solange, perhaps, helps Camille find some peace and resolution of a sorts.
4 out of 5 stars. A definite recommended read. I really came to connect, sympathize, and understand these characters. Camille in particular felt extraordinarily real. I connected with her passion and her desire to get more out of life. Bruneau has woven a powerful story that takes place along side WWII, with characters who spring to life off of the page.