Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (thoughts)
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.