Marie NDiaye is an award-winning author of French and Senegalese parentage. She defines herself as a French author, born and raised in France by her mother. Her novel Trois femmes puissantes, published in 2006 won the author the prestigious Prix Goncourt 2009 in France, the first black woman ever to receive this recognition. The book was published in English in 2012 (by Knopf) under the title Three Strong Women, translated by John Fletcher.
Trois femmes puissantes is an intricately crafted, complex and thought provoking book. It doesn’t initially feel like a novel as it comprises three ‘novellas’, three fictional accounts that each explores one individual’s life at a crucial moment in time. Yet, reflecting on the content, the writing and the structure it falls clearly into the category of novel: the stories are linked in subtle ways through imagery, peripheral character and atmosphere.
NDiaye’s novel comes alive not only through its beautiful language, but also through her probing of the many contrasts and opposites that are the building blocks for a life. Her writing is precise and detailed in conveying her characters’ inner voices; yet, their thought processes are not always easy to comprehend on first reading. Her description of their close physical surroundings is highly evocative; yet, nature can be threatening, deafening, as well as calming and refreshing, once the sun sets over the dry and dusty land and the debilitating heat subsides, whether in Africa or in France.
Building on the distinctive scenarios for her well defined characters, NDiaye delves deep into the complexities of individuals who are somehow and in some way caught between West Africa and France, whether in the present, the past or a dream of a future. For each of the women at the centre – Norah, Fanta and Khady – we are compelled to ask: Where to from here? However, the stories and each protagonist’s circumstances are more complex than this question suggests and over the course of the three accounts we are given part answers and more suggestions, leaving us to imagine alternatives or, maybe, not.
In the first story, for example, Norah’s father retreats for the night into an ancient flame tree growing behind the house to enjoy the cooling air… Complementing her realistic descriptions of circumstances and surroundings, the author introduces recurring symbols and metaphors that indicate or hint at something beyond the reality that we and the protagonist perceive. For instance, birds and wings take special meaning and appear in all three novellas in different forms. In one, they are not just noisy companions and observers, but especially threatening in the mind’s eye of the protagonist. They seem to play games with the human mind… Last but not least, at the end of each section/story NDiaye teases us with a short paragraph, a kind of epilogue, titled “Counterpoint” that suggests a different perspective or conclusion.
NDiaye imagines her central characters caught in a kind of fault line between (West) Africa and France with all that this can represent. One underlying theme is that of individuals moving in one direction or another between France and Senegal, changing places, whether visiting/living/dreaming. Norah, a successful Paris-based lawyer, a young mother with a complicated personal life, is suddenly summoned back to Senegal by a father she hardly remembers. What does he want from her and how will they reconnect, if at all? This story appears to be inspired (or more) by the author’s personal experience. NDiaye defines herself as French; her connection to Senegal and to her father is as slight as that of her heroine… however, for Norah it is somebody else who draws her back and who impacts her future moves. Fanta, a hidden yet very central presence in the second story, appears to have succeeded in bridging the two worlds while Khady… well, nothing more should be revealed. The last story is for me one of the most haunting accounts about people caught in the transcontinental fault line that I have read in a long time. Brilliant in its portrayal, devastating in its substance. Yet, Khady is the one who believes in hope, in her identity and, through her experiences, gains in self-confidence: “She hadn’t really lost very much, she would think later”; she wouldn’t regret the past either.
Going back to the attribute “puissant” in French and “strong” of the English title (or ‘powerful’ as some have suggested as a better translation) is worth an additional comment. At the surface none of the women are particularly strong or powerful. Their inner strength is only slowly revealed by the sensitive and richly imagined narrative. I see NDiaye’s “Three Strong Women” as a kind of triptych: three distinct portrayals of women’s experiences living between two continents and cultures. Seen together, they depict three alternatives of human experiences for women, and to a lesser degree for men, when exposed to the constant inner and outer tensions in their lives as they are trying to negotiate the fault lines.
A paperback edition of Three Strong Women is due to be released on May 21, 2013. Click here to pre-order a copy.