Book review: Philosophical debut novel traces time-bending feminist mystery

Utterly and unsettling new, the deeper you get into author Carrie Jenkins’ story, the less you know what to expect

Debut novelist Carrie Jenkins has written a dark, propulsive and original novel in Victoria Sees It.
Debut novelist Carrie Jenkins has written a dark, propulsive and original novel in Victoria Sees It. Photo by Carrie Jenkins

Victoria Sees It

Carrie Jenkins | Strange Light (Toronto, 2021)

288 pages | $24.95

“If women are crazy it’s because they contain multitudes, which is because they have to,” thinks our eponymous protagonist in Victoria Sees It. Debut novelist Carrie Jenkins has written a dark, propulsive and original novel: A feminist interrogation of madness, wrapped in a gothic mystery.

At first glance, the pieces are a familiar assortment of tropes: A brilliant, troubled outsider; a missing blonde; the lingering question of our protagonist’s sanity. And yet Victoria Sees It feels utterly and unsettlingly new. The deeper you get into the story, the less you know what to expect.

Victoria, our idiosyncratic protagonist, grows up in the care of a timid aunt and brute of an uncle. In the grand tradition of literary heroines, she is impoverished emotionally as well as financially — her mother is catatonic, her father conspicuously absent from the narrative.

Young Victoria spends her childhood roaming hospital corridors and institutional courtyards until her precocious intelligence secures her escape, eventually to Cambridge University. Jenkins holds a PhD from Cambridge, and she infuses her descriptions of the prestigious campus with wry, specific detail: The greasy late-night food trucks, the poetic bathroom graffiti, the unbridgeable distance between Victoria and her astronomically wealthy peers.

Victoria’s hermetic life is radically transformed by Deb, a spacey, aristocratic blonde swathed in pink cashmere. She becomes Victoria’s first real friend, and the two are inseparable until Deb disappears from Cambridge without a trace, and the plot twists into a gothic mystery.

Victoria embarks an obsessive search for her friend as well as a relationship with a cop named Julie. Julie escorts Victoria on a series of sweet, morbid road trips, searching the countryside for clues whenever the body of a young woman turns up. Julie is a misfit, too, but she is also the only person who takes Victoria seriously.

Victoria Sees It is more than a thriller. It’s a novel about institutional power — who has it, and what they do with it. What they ignore, who they dismiss. No matter how smart or accomplished Victoria becomes, as a woman she is always brushing up against the same timeless misogyny. “Good girls walk an infinitesimally fine line,” she thinks. “Two-dimensional. We all know that, even if we don’t know we know it, but what isn’t obvious until you get there is that the line doesn’t go very far.”

“Metaphysics and epistemology,” Victoria tells herself, at Cambridge, “very important not to let them shade into one another, to confuse what is real with what we know.”

What is insanity but the refusal, after all, to bend to someone else’s version of reality? In Victoria Sees It, Jenkins diverts a familiar literary journey— the heroine’s descent into madness— into unfamiliar, thrilling territory.

Michelle Cyca is a writer and editor living in Vancouver.

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