In 1809, at the age of 18, Henriette Faber enrolled herself in medical school in Paris - and since medicine was a profession prohibited to women, she changed her name to Henri in order to matriculate. She would spend the next 15 years practicing medicine and living as a man.
Drafted to serve as a surgeon in Napoleon's army, Faber endured the horrors of the 1812 retreat across Russia. She later embarked to the Caribbean and set up a medical practice in a remote Cuban village, where she married Juana de León, an impoverished local. Three years into their marriage, de León turned Faber in to the authorities, demanding that the marriage be annulled. A sensational legal trial ensued, and Faber was stripped of her medical license, forced to dress as a woman, sentenced to prison, and ultimately sent into exile. She was last seen on a boat headed to New Orleans in 1827.
In this, his last published work, Antonio Benítez Rojo takes the outline provided by historical events and weaves a richly detailed backdrop for Faber, who becomes a vivid and complex figure grappling with the strictures of her time. Woman in Battle Dress is a sweeping, ambitious epic, in which Henriette Faber tells the story of her life, a compelling, entertaining, and ultimately triumphant tale.
Even though it's based on true events, this story is fantastic; cross dressing, conscription, love, and capture. In Henriette we have a heroine worthy of Dumas. Yet in her ability to reflect and adapt, she's a modern character.
In addition to the nail biting narrative, "Woman in Battle Dress" is beautifully written, with a lyrical and fresh translation that laid me out: "What they know of you in New Orleans is nothing but secondhand gossip spread by travelers from Havana; rumors repeated by sailors and merchants who, hoping to amaze their listeners, turn evrey drizzle into a downpour, every chicken's death into a horrifying murder."
Most impressive of all is the jaw-dropping performance by Audie winner Robin Miles. Warm, sure, and clear, with a complete mastery of the century-spanning Afro-Cuban and European dialects and languages. She's a born storyteller.
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