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Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (thoughts)

December 18, 2013

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye
I found Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye to be a challenge. I thought it was a short novel (the ebook version is 180 pages), only to be discover after fifty pages that it is in fact a collection of three long short stories or short novellas. More fundamentally, the title led me to expect, well, strong female characters. The kind that triumph over adversity and while they go through hardships, come out the other end fundamentally in tact. And looking at the cover, I thought there might be some kind of magical realism involved. I suppose I imagined Marie NDiaye as a kind of French-African early Isabel Allende. I was deeply mistaken.

NDiaye is a powerful writer: her prose entranced me almost effortlessly, with a structure and rhythm that reminded a bit of Woolf, if Woolf wrote in French (I read this in translation, but many of the structures reminded me more of French than English). And her characters are compellingly weird: in fact, the first novella reminded me a bit of Helen Oyeyemi (but more straightforward). Norah, the main character, has journeyed from France to visit her estranged African father in his native country. She’s overcome her poor childhood and become a French lawyer: at first, it seems like all of the problems in the story stem from Norah’s selfish, conceited father. But as the narrative unfolds, Norah’s thoughts are clearly a bit off, becoming stranger and stranger. I loved this bit unconditionally, but it abruptly ends, and I was popped into the head of an even more disturbed character, Rudy.

Rudy is actually insane, and while I could admire NDiaye’s considerable skill in bringing his thought process to life, I absolutely hated being in his head. I kept checking to see when it would end (sadly, this novella is almost a hundred pages, and thus twice as long as Norah’s tale), as every sentence made my skin just crawl. I imagine the strong woman in this tale is his longer-suffering Senegalese wife, a teacher in her own country but now stuck as a stay at home mom in the country due to French employment laws. But the glimpses of her are all through Rudy’s twisted vision and thus don’t provide the reader any relief. The final novella/story takes up the tale of an impoverished, and perhaps mentally handicapped Senegalese woman who, being a young childless widow, is sent by her in-laws on the long, hard attempt to cross northern Africa and immigrate to France. While her story is once again powerfully told, and draws necessary attention to the plight of Africans desperate to enter Europe, legally or not, the hardships she endures made me cry. And as I was reading right before bedtime, I was then horribly concerned about nightmares (I’m prone to them) and ended up staying up for an extra two hours to calm and distract myself.

Now I hope you can see why I struggled so much with this book. In fact, I’m still not really sure what to say. NDiaye is clearly a deeply talented writer, but I’m hesitant to explore more of her books. If they’re similar to the first novella, I’ll probably love them. But if they’re more like the third, or God forbid, the second, I simply don’t have the stomach for it. The darkness doesn’t feel excessive or forced: I do think it’s essential for what NDiaye is trying to accomplish. So I’m left with a dilemma: push more out of my comfort zone, to engage with good writing that, while not problematic on a social justice level, leaves me disgusted? Or draw back? I’m not sure yet, but at least I’ll know in future not to read her work in the evening. I’d also love your thoughts/advice as to what you do when confronted with such books.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2013 7:45 am

    I so agree with you about this book. It’s VERY dark and depressing, and the 2nd story, the longest, was my least favorite and almost made me not finish this book.

  2. December 18, 2013 10:28 am

    hm… They could have marketed it a bit better so you knew what you were getting yourself into!

  3. December 19, 2013 3:56 am

    It’s a good book, even if you wonder at times about the title (the second story hardly mentions the woman, and for most of the third story the title feels like mockery…). I enjoyed it, but I can see how you might feel a little uneasy about what happens in it.

  4. December 19, 2013 6:07 am

    This book was also the first Marie Ndiaye I tried, and I was rather surprised to love it, because it was difficult (the subject and the language). It remains a memorable experience and I’ll try something else by her later on (but not too soon!)

  5. December 19, 2013 8:30 am

    I have a threshold for how far out of my comfort zone I will go. A friend gave me a book for my eleventh birthday, and while I don’t remember anything about the plot at all (it wasn’t horror or anything, it was realistic fiction, just very upsetting realistic fiction), I remember feeling so miserable and scared and unsettled that I had to hide the book under a couch cushion to get to sleep. And the next morning I took it out from the couch and threw it away and dumped a bunch of food trash on top of it so I couldn’t get it back out. When a book makes me feel that way, it is too much. I think it’s good to go out of my comfort zone, but not good to make myself so miserably unhappy I can’t sleep.

    (Nonfiction never has this impact on me. Sometimes I’ll stop reading a nonfiction book because it’s too sad, but it never keeps me from sleeping.)

  6. December 20, 2013 11:17 am

    Thanks for the warning. I had heard good things about the author, but by the time I could find a copy, I had a sense that it was the kind of book that I find disturbing.
    I hate to admit it, but there are books that I avoid because they touch me too deeply. I generally like books that raise difficult issues, but even if well written there are some places I refuse to be taken in books and “real” life.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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