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Guide to Madame Zee by Pearl Luke

It starts with a strange tightness in her chest, followed by a vision. A boy she doesn’t recognize. A man falling through ice. And finally the serene face of Honora, her dead sister. Mabel doesn’t know why she has these “daydreams.” As a young English girl at the dawn of the 20th century, all Mabel knows is that she desperately wants to understand these powerful, shameful episodes that make her so different.

Immigrating to Canada, Mabel tries to cover her secret life with a veneer of normalcy, yet she is propelled into confronting her gift. She becomes Madame Zee, disciple and lover to Brother XII, a charismatic Spiritualist cult leader installed in a Utopian colony on the verdant eastern shores of Vancouver Island. Then, in one shattering moment, Mabel must choose between her dream of understanding and the reality of truth.

In her re-imagining of Madame Zee—a mysterious historical character known only for her cruelty and sexual conquests—Pearl Luke gives us a searing and magical novel shot through with profound sensitivity.


  1. The book begins with Mabel Rowbotham lying in a field with her sister, where she has a vision, which she calls a “daydream.” Why did the author start the novel in this way. How is the vision itself, or what Mabel sees in the vision important to the story?
  2. At the beginning of the novel, Mabel is shown to have several siblings, but as the story progresses, these siblings are no longer part of the story. What was the point of showing them at all?
  3. Madame ZeeIn the author’s first novel, Burning Ground, fire was an important metaphor. In Madame Zee, both fire and water figure significantly. What metaphorical meaning do these elements have in the story?
  4. The real Madame Zee was said to be angry and cruel. The author downplayed that side of her. Why might she have chosen to do so?
  5. Madame Zee was not “lucky in love,” and in that time period, divorce was uncommon. What social hardship would she have faced as a result of her bad relationships?
  6. When her first marriage ended, why did Zee go to stay with her father-in-law in Florida? What does that tell readers about her? What might she have done instead?
  7. When Zee meets Nellie, it is almost as if she has found the sister she lost. And yet there is an element of desire in their relationship. What was the purpose of this in the story? What did it suggest about Zee and her nature?
  8. All of the men with whom Zee had relationships were extreme in one way or another. Why might she have been attracted to this sort of man?
  9. The Brother, XII, had many wealthy benefactors who believed that he had a direct line to the “other side.” What causes people to be so attracted to cult figures that they donate generously?
  10. Although the story is based on an historical figure, known for her association with the Brother, XII, only the last quarter of the book takes place at the cult. Why?
  11. The author has stated in interviews her desire to show Madame Zee as a sympathetic character who was neither completely evil nor particularly happy and well adjusted. Has she succeeded in making her sympathetic despite her weaknesses?
  12. If an historic personality is portrayed as unlikable in non-fiction accounts, is there any value in portraying the same individual differently in fiction?

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Posted by Pearl on Jul 18 2010. Filed under Reading Guides. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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