When These Good Hands came out, I noticed it because I loved both the cover and the title, but I didn’t know yet what the book was about. When I saw Carin’s review and an interview with the author on her blog, Matilda Magtree, it decided me.
These Good Hands tells the story of Camille Claudel. It is 1943 and she is at the end of her life, having spent the last 30 years of it in a mental institution in France. Claudel’s story takes the form of letters written to her younger self about her life leading up to her confinement. She starts out as a promising and talented young artist who ends up having a passionate affair with her teacher, Auguste Rodin. Then, in later years, she begins to suspect Rodin of spreading lies about her and wanting to keep her work for himself. This paranoia creeps into the story so artfully that it is hard to pinpoint when exactly it all starts, but the weight of it is devastating.
Life was a blur of clay always seconds from drying out, needing wet rags to dampen it. Life was clamminess, a chill and the ache of work in our bones, dust in our throats and noses. The endless turning of hips and shoulders, bending Monsieur’s models towards light. We rendered, in clay, their knotted muscles, the invisible fibre of nerves. Their torsos arched over the splintery platforms they posed upon; their spread knees jutted. I don’t suppose you remember, for by then you had begun to depart.
In alternating chapters, we hear from Claudel’s nurse, Solange, through her journal entries. She is new to the institution and takes a special interest in Claudel. She is curious about her past and her constant need to be writing. We also find out a little about Solange’s own life, past and present (including bits about the war going on and the occupation of France). One thing I found especially interesting was hearing about some of the old treatments used on psychiatric patients; fever therapy, the Freeman-Watts procedure, electroconvulsive shock therapy, and the Utica crib. I also know I would never have wanted her job.
This book is not a quick read and I wasn’t immediately captivated, but once I got into it I felt immersed in their worlds. Claudel struggled to become recognized for her own talent, rather than just as the student (and mistress) of the well-known Auguste Rodin. Her story is tragic, but it is so worth reading about. It is heart-breaking to think of her in that asylum for 30 years where no one really knew her.
Here is a passage I like, comparing Auguste Rodin and Claude Debussy:
Like wind and rain, wildflowers and weeds springing up in knot gardens, his notes leapt from silence with a liquid quality the opposite of Monsieur’s suffocating thunder. Debussy was air and sunlight on faceted water, Monsieur a little volcano spewing rocks and dirt.
Penis-heads guarding advancement’s ladder, claiming the light reflected by women.
Who knew buttercup-yellow frills and candy-floss curls could be harbingers of disaster?
There are days when one’s best intentions can serve to create a small hell.
But like any labouring mother I had to push. Her marble head crowned. Mouth, nose and eyes appeared.
In her interview with Carin, Carol Bruneau tells us why she felt motivated to give Claudel a voice, what she would have asked her had they been sitting together at a dinner party, and 3 places she would recommend you visit if you are ever on a Claudel tour in France.
I wanted to try and give her a voice, to get inside the character of someone so feisty yet so vulnerable and—in just about every worldly way—defeated.