Sebastien Japrisot loves a mystery. In his award-winning World War I tale, A Very Long Engagement, he sent his beguiling heroine Mathilde Donnay on a high-stakes scavenger hunt to discover which of five condemned French soldiers--one of them her fiancé--may have evaded execution. Women in Evidence, Japrisot's sixth novel, set in the years following World War II, chronicles another woman's search for answers about her lover's fate. This time his death is not in question, but the identity of his killer certainly is. For this young man--is his name Vincent or Beau-Masque, Tony or Francis or Christophe?--has had many lovers, and each one, it seems, has good reason to want him dead. Rashomon-like, Japrisot reveals the victim's life from many different perspectives. First, a young bride recounts how she was kidnapped on her wedding night by an escaped convict named Vincent whom she shoots when he rejects her. Next, a prostitute named Belinda discovers a young man named Tony bleeding in the kitchen of her brothel; he tells her he has assumed the identity of her ex-lover in order to help him escape from prison. Caroline, a schoolteacher, relates how an escaped prisoner named Eddie broke into her house, an event that triggers some pretty torrid fantasies in this repressed widow's brain. Eight women in all, with eight different takes on this mysterious young man. And though each tale differs significantly from the others, a few salient details carry over from story to story: a spurned bridegroom left in his pajamas by the side of the road; the murdered daughter of a powerful man; a prison break. Yet the accounts differ so radically--whom is the reader to believe?
The women's testimony is being collected by Marie-Martine Lepage, a lawyer and one of the dead man's many loves who is trying to clear his name of a terrible crime. Her notations appear frequently in earlier chapters, commenting on, critiquing, and occasionally contradicting what the other women have said. Is she a narrator we can rely on? Perhaps not. In her own chapter, Marie-Martine informs us:
I am writing by the glow of a red light on my ceiling that stays on all night. It was a hard battle before they let me have a pencil and paper. They claim my condition deteriorates when I delve back into this affair. But who else could tell the rest of it? So when she tells us that "his real name was in fact Christophe," can we really believe her? In Women in Evidence, Japrisot has accomplished two things: He has given distinctive voice to eight very different women, and in doing so he has crafted an intriguingly labyrinthine plot that will have you reading the final pages more than once as you try to unravel the puzzling tangle of contradictory evidence. And like the obstinate young man whose death lies at the heart of the tale, this novel is not entirely what it seems. Beneath its mystery-genre veneer is a smart and original meditation on the mutable boundaries of passion and the extremes to which love can lead. --Alix Wilber