Norah, Fanta, and Khady don’t know each other – although their paths cross glancingly – but the three heroines of “Three Strong Women,” Marie NDiaye’s linked novellas, winner of France’s Prix Goncourt, share roots in Senegal and at least a tenuous connection to France. All are strong, as the title suggests, but strength in
NDiaye’s fictional universe takes many forms, from forgiveness to patience to a furious insistence on one’s own importance, such as the belief one holds that she is “indivisible and precious and could only ever be herself.” Another of the women is remembered by her lover for her ankles, “slender, rigid, valiant reeds” – this blend of delicacy and power could also describe NDiaye’s gorgeous, fearless prose.
The three stories build in intensity. In the first Norah travels to visit her estranged Senegalese father who, years earlier, had left his French wife and daughters while taking his 5-year-old son back to Senegal. Grief and her mother’s ensuing madness have left Norah brittle and cautious, a lawyer and careful mother who wants only to protect her daughter from “eccentric or perverse behavior.” What Norah learns of her father and brother – a tale of brutal selfishness – tests the rectitude she has so touchingly constructed and defended.
In the second story, a French man fears losing Fanta, his African lover, and their son due to his financial and moral failings. We see little of Fanta beyond her graceful reticence, but we become uncomfortably intimate with her partner, Rudy, a feckless, possibly mentally ill kitchen renovation salesman with a persistent hemorrhoidal itch. Rudy’s day is weirdly comic but harrowing, too – he’s hot and itchy, at one point “blinded by the sun” just as Camus’s stranger was – and it’s to NDiaye’s great credit that by the end, we care about this troubled soul.
In the third, we re-encounter Khady, glimpsed earlier by Norah, a childless widow cast out by her husband’s family. As she journeys from the relative stability of life as a West African market woman to ever-grimmer forms of exploitation, Khady survives through strength and love of self:
“[S]he’d always been conscious of her uniqueness and aware, in a manner that could neither be proved nor disproved, that she, Khady Demba, was strictly irreplaceable, even though her parents had abandoned her and her grandmother had only taken her in because there hadn’t been a choice, and even though no being on earth needed her or wanted her around.’’
With such tough, sinuously winding sentences NDiaye chronicles how women survive whatever life puts in front of them, whether in the form of mortal or moral peril. Each occupies some space that takes place in both Africa and Europe. Although NDiaye rarely writes of the racism they face (Rudy’s mother rejecting his son for his African features is perhaps the most overt), the vestigial scars of colonialism are evident throughout. Invoking repeated imagery of birds and trees (not the pretty versions: These are attacking birds and overripe, rotting fruit trees), NDiaye’s storytelling approaches something of the power and simplicity of folklore.
There is good and evil here, and as in the world they are blended confusingly and only slowly revealed. In the interplay between Europe and Africa, between men and women, NDiaye finds both beauty and beasts.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.