Madame Zee

by Pearl Luke

Published by HarperCollins

345 pages, 2006

Buy it online



When Sympathy Meets History

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


His smile is so genuine, his eyes so blue, that when he looks away she instantly feels the loss, as if he has taken back something she just now learned she needs.

You could search the English language for months and still not come up with a phrase more succinct and perfect than this one, describing the meeting between Brother X11 and the woman who comes to call herself Madame Zee.

Pearl Luke won a hefty award for her first book, Breaking Ground, and Madame Zee seems sure to follow in its path. You just know that a writer who spends five years writing and researching her work is in love with her craft. "I wouldn't say I'm a perfectionist," she told me recently, "but I labour over it, and I do strive for accuracy and precision in detail and language, so I tend to layer the word until I am happy with how it reads, both silently and orally."

Luke's efforts to be accurate drove her to pore over documents to discover which plants grew in English meadows, which dolls were available in the 1890s, what children's diseases flourished at the time, and what names were commonly given to children. She also honed up on the Theosophical Society and its founder, Madame Blavatsky, researched spiritualism and the paranormal and discovered that for almost every page she wanted to write, some investigation was required. "At times I thought I would never finish this book," she says. "Larger concepts required weeks and months of research."

Although the author stuck to facts when possible, she was free to flesh out her own Madame Zee, who was born in England and christened Mabel Rowbotham. Zee's life has always been obscured by the far greater notoriety of her lover, the hypnotic Brother X11, the cult founder of the Aquarian Foundation on Vancouver Island and later Valdes and De Courcy Islands in the 1920s. This enigmatic woman, who followed her parents from England to the Canadian prairies in her 20s, changed her name when she began to "come out" as a psychic ten years later, while living with wealthy friends who encouraged her abilities and research.

Luke says one of her main goals was to create a sympathetic character. "I consider Mabel/Zee courageous in her own way because she did not marry the staid farmer next door and 'settle' for an existence that didn't interest her," says Luke. "When she did marry, it was to someone who sparked her body and her imagination ... she was not victimized, but rather took control, however limited, however poor her choices. … I am unfamiliar with any life that does not include ambivalence and agonizing, and I wanted her to feel "real" in that sense."

As a result, the reader meets a very different Madame Zee from the cruel and brutal "foreman" of common lore whom everyone supposedly feared. Luke says that her research "allows me to believe that while she could have been an opportunist with a vile temper, there is not much evidence to prove anything, and given the resentment and chauvinistic thinking surrounding her, she may also have had her reputation tarnished unfairly."

In seeking to reinvent Zee, the author is also sensitive to the fact that she is dealing with people who really lived."I did think about how my portrayal of Zee might affect any loved ones she may have left behind," says Luke. "That's part of the reason why I chose to characterize her in a more positive light, and not to use the real names of some of the colonists, but ultimately, I am writing fiction, so while I have made every attempt to be as historically accurate as possible in terms of background, the character of Zee is just that: a character. An interesting one, I hope. "

While many readers may not admire or even like the resulting character, she is indisputably interesting. Luke has achieved her goal. | June 2006


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.