Pearl Luke won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2001 for her first book, "Burning Ground." The reason for her choice is quite obvious as we read her second, "Madame Zee."
Luke's prose is incredibly graceful, brimming with fresh metaphors which ornament a captivating plot. For example, anyone who has read much Canadian literature has heard every "Prairie Sky" metaphor 20 times over. Luke, however, miraculously conjures something unique as she likens the huge Saskatchewan sky to an "enameled blue bowl upturned over the entire province." Luke's writing is full of similarly vivid and memorable passages.
"Madame Zee" is a fictionalized biography of the woman born as Mabel Rowbotham. This novel chronicles the journey from her childhood home in England to a position as a schoolteacher in Saskatchewan, and finally to British Columbia, where she becomes involved with Brother Twelve, an infamous cult leader.
History tends to cast women in conventional and restrictive roles -- Madonna or whore; savior or siren. Madame Zee is no exception: she is uniformly vilified as a cruel sexual predator. However, very little is actually known about this mysterious woman who always carried a whip. Zee is nudged out of the historical spotlight by the charismatic Brother Twelve.
Luke questions the one-dimensional quality of Zee's reputation, and uses her novel to create a rich and complex character out of this shadowy woman. The enigmatic Madame Zee is replaced by Mabel Rowbotham, a young woman who wrestles with the significance of her clairvoyant visions and searches for a place where this talent will be accepted. Aside from her unique ability, Mabel is a completely normal young woman, and the reader empathizes with her desire to make a difference in the lives of others, as well as her struggle to find meaning in her own.
Bibliophiles will also identify with Mabel's belief that "if more people read and lived vicariously outside their own set of experiences" there would be "less stupidity and more empathy in the world." Mabel's decision to change her name to Zee is also understandable as an attempt to distance herself from a marriage gone sour.
Once she becomes involved with the Brother Twelve and his cult, a rift threatens between the reader and Madame Zee. However, Luke keeps readers involved by subtly pitting Zee against the Brother even as she rises through the cult's hierarchy.
Luke's prose is epic in its musicality and lush detail. Through Luke's lively and intelligent writing, the reader is inexorably drawn into Zee's quest for self-actualization.
Whatever your opinion of the historical Madame Zee may be, her fictional counterpart is not to be missed.