“Radium, death, art and love.” Per Olov Enquist bridges the lyrical language of the three notebooks of Blanche Wittman: The Book of Questions, penned by the darling of the medical community of the last decade of the nineteenth century, the infamous “hysterical” patient of Professor JM Charcot at Saltpetriere Hospital.
Poked and prodded by scientists in their efforts to unravel the secrets of Woman, Blanche eventually becomes the assistant of Marie Curie, the Polish physicist and eventual Nobel Prize winner. Blanche and Marie launch into the sea of the Enlightenment, experimenting with an amazing element thought to be the wonder of the coming century: radiation. This glowing element fascinates the women; Blanche endlessly rhapsodizes on its luminescent qualities, its inherent beauty and potential as a curative for the ills of mankind.
Radiation is, for a time, considered a miracle, to the detriment of those who eventually perish from leukemia and other such disorders. Radioactive health spas enjoy inordinate popularity; there is even “Curie Hair Water” for the prevention of hair loss, but by 1925 the tide has begun to turn and the “miracle” radiation will cost Blanche all of her limbs but one and finally her life.
Searching for cachet in a man’s world, Blanche achieves notoriety as the subject of experiments on hysteria at the hands of her physician, Charcot, who becomes her lover. The women are naturally drawn together by temperament and isolation in a male-dominated society, their relationships distorted by ill-fated choices and fueled by romantic ideals. A true scientist, Curie is also mentor and friend, remaining with the diminished Blanche until her demise.
Think of Blanche and Marie, heads bent over their shining experiments, the poisonous element that spells the ruin of Blanche’s extraordinary beauty and deforms Curie’s right hand, the two basking in an island of friendship and mutual admiration while hovering over luminescent death. Picture Blanche near the end of her days, ensconced in her wooden box, reduced to a torso with only a right arm and hand to pen her thoughts, dissecting the nature of love and woman, radiation the fusion of all yet the instrument of her death.
Blanche’s fevered observations highlight an obsession with imagination at the cost of reason, a woman defined by a culture on the brink of scientific discovery, spiritualism and the shimmering radiation that so enthralls, the plot as ephemeral as the elements. With the ambience of memoir rather than fiction, the novel retains its lyrical beauty throughout, Blanche's ramblings revealing the ambiguity of the times, a scientific community trapped in an impulsive merging of hubris and theory that will prove not only erroneous, but deadly. This novel is unique, disturbing and a timely reminder of man’s penchant for folly.