Marie NDiaye's Three Strong Women (translated by John Fletcher, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) consists of three novella-length stories, tales which are very loosely connected (blink, and you'll miss the few connecting details). Each tells of the fate of a woman either born in Africa, or with an African parent, and the stories look at the uneasy balance the women have to strike to make a success of their lives.
The centre of the first story is Norah, a successful French lawyer, who visits her father (against her better judgement) after his repeated pleas. However, the 'strong' woman has trouble preventing a return to her role of the submissive daughter when she sees her father again. Despite the success she has made of her life, her father still believes he can order her around and leave her in the dark about his real reasons for summoning her to Africa.
Norah's struggles with her father are mirrored by those in her relationship with Jakob, a rugged German freeloader she has fallen for. Her desire for order, a defence against the chaos of her early life, is in danger of being swept away by her handsome lover's charm:
"Not that there was anything that could objectively be considered dangerous in leaving the girls in Jakob's care, but she was concerned that the values of discipline, frugality and lofty morality which, it seemed to her, she had established in her little flat and which were meant to represent and adorn her own life and form the basis of Lucie's upbringing, were being demolished in her absence with cold, methodical jubilation by a man."Regretting her decision to answer her father's call, she wants to return to her Parisian world, but is forced to stay when she finds out exactly why she has been summoned - to help her brother, Sony...
pp.20/1 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
In the second story, our strong woman is Fanta, a former teacher from Senegal, now living in France. However, the action is narrated by her husband Rudy, a most messed-up individual. In the longest of the three stories, NDiaye uses the flawed husband to speak for the wife and gives us a psychological insight into the thoughts of a mediocre nonentity:
"He hung up, downcast, exhausted and feeling stunned, as if - emerging from a long, melancholy, agonising dream - he had to adjust his consciousness to the ambient reality, a reality which for him, he thought, was frequently just an interminable, unchanging, cold nightmare; it seemed to him that he moved from one dream to another without ever finding the exit, an awakening which he modestly saw as putting in order, as organising rationally, the scattered elements of his existence." (p.108)Poor Rudy, haunted by his failures at work, and the fear of losing his wife, is sleepwalking through his days, unable to turn his life around.
Gradually, we learn why he is the way he is, and (naturally) it all began in Africa. The seeds for the disintegration of his relationship with his wife, and the strangely unloving bond he has with his son, were sown in one incident back in Senegal; the story here is merely the culmination of the consequences set in motion by that event. This middle story is a book in its own right, a powerful novella with an open, ambiguous ending.
The third story is, in some ways, more straight-forward, but it is infinitely more harrowing. Khady, a young woman living with her dead husband's family, is kicked out after the in-laws' limited patience finally wears thin. She's taken on a journey, but she has no idea where she's going or why. She has little interest in her fate, following her guide, comfortably numb - but that only gets you so far...
It's a story of an uneducated, disadvantaged woman, one in which she struggles to adapt and learn from (bad) experiences. Through theft, deceit and worse, Khady learns - the hard way - that you can't trust anyone. It showcases the plight of women in the third world, and in many ways it's an horrific story, one in which the sympathetic reader will feel for poor Khady. However, paradoxically, it's also a story of a 'strong' woman, where Khady takes charge of, and responsibility for, her own life...
One of the main attractions of Three Strong Women is NDiaye's style, the book consisting mainly of elegant, complex, monologues. While the stories generally stand alone, there are a few themes which run through all three, one of which is a fascination with birds. In Norah's story, it's her father, perched in a flame tree like an over-sized bird; in the second story, it's a buzzard which follows Rudy around, an incarnation of his guilty conscience (and Fanta's anger); in the final story, Khady is hit by the similarity of her guide to another type of bird:
"...she could tell from the absence of vibration, from a certain stagnant quality of the air around her, that the man - shepherd or jailer or protector or secret caster of evil spells - was the only one fidgeting, pacing feverishly up and down the sandy, uneven pavement, bouncing and hopping about involuntarily in his green trainers exactly like (Khady thought) the black and white crows nearby, black crows with broad white collars, whose brother he perhaps was, subtly changed into a man in order to steal Khady." (p.236)I'll let you decide what NDiaye is trying to say with all that...
Three Strong Women features women suffocated by the love of the men around them, be they partners, sons or fathers, and in many ways, we are left wondering whether the title is meant to be serious or mocking. The original French title was Trois femmes puissantes, which literally translated means 'three powerful women' - a title which seems even more misguided given the powerlessness of at least two of the characters.
While the title may be a little misleading, classifying the book as a novel might be even more of a struggle. In truth, it's a collection of three novellas, connected by the theme of the struggle women face in a masculine society. NDiaye leaves us in no doubt that, for all our progress, it's still very much a man's world.
Still, leaving aside the questions of the title and what kind of work it actually is, Three Strong Women is a very good book. Stu had this down as one for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and given that even the judges were clamouring for more works by female writers, I'm not quite sure how this missed out (I hope it was submitted...). With many more books likely to come out in English though, I'm sure that NDiaye's name will pop up on that list at some point over the next few years :)