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The Hangman in the Mirror by K. Cayley

Cayley, Kate. The Hangman in the Mirror. Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2011. Print.

The Hangman in the Mirror is a fictionalized biography recounting the strange case of Françoise Laurent. The plot might rightly be criticized as ludicrous or fantastical if it were not based on fact. In 1751, a young woman living in New France, Françoise Laurent is sentenced to hang for stealing a pair of gloves from her aristocratic mistress. Other than letters of annulment, a pardon, or remission (none of which were forthcoming in Françoise’s case), the only way a woman could avoid the noose was to marry the hangman. At the time of Françoise’s sentence, the position of hangman was vacant. Conveniently, Françoise’s neighbour in prison, Jean Corolère, is single and serving a sentence for duelling. In August 1751, Jean Corolère petitions to be released from prison to serve as hangman. His petition is accepted and he becomes both the hangman and husband to Françoise, saving her from the gallows.

Out of these bare facts, author Cayley has fictionalized Françoise’s life story and has provided a believable, detailed, and compelling portrait of Montreal in the mid-18th century. Life is not easy and it is understandable that the characters who populate the pages of The Hangman are tough and hard. While Françoise was “driven by desperation and unimaginable hardship,” it is difficult to root for Françoise because she is portrayed as proud, mean-spirited, and selfish. Ultimately, Jean, not Françoise, is the hero of the story. Our understanding of Françoise Laurent’s life and motivations for her crime and her relationship with Jean is incomplete. The author is commended for bringing this intriguing tale into public consciousness and the novel is recommended especially for providing a fascinating glimpse into Canadian history.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Tami Oliphant

Tami Oliphant is an assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.