Three Strong Women – Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French Trois Femmes Puissantes by John Fletcher
MacLehose Press, April 2012
I received a review copy from the publisher
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Three Strong Women is a book of 288 pages that unites three stories about women with connections to France and Senegal. Each story focuses on one woman, who despite pressing circumstances holds on to some form of inner strength and identity.
In the first story Norah leaves Paris to visit her father in Dakar. Their reunion is uncomfortable, as Norah is a daughter from one of her father’s previous marriages, and she has always felt neglected by him. On arrival, Norah finds out that the reason her father asked her over is to defend her brother in court as his lawyer. Norah’s growing realisation of what happened during the years she was absent brings her to the brink of madness.
In the second story we catch glimpses of the unhappy marriage between Fanta and her husband Rudi, who she followed to rural France years ago. This story is told from the angry and guilt-ridden perspective of the husband, Rudi.
The third story is about Khady, who has only her family in law to take care of her after her husband’s death. Driven into exile by this family, who want her to go to Europe to make money, as she is of no use to them at home, we follow Khady’s attempts to make it to Europe together with other illegal immigrants.
The interconnections between the stories are slight, but there are moments in each of the stories that make you go “ah, so that’s how these women are related” for just a second.
This is the moment where I am going to have to be honest: Three Strong Women is the kind of book that I knew I *should* like, given its qualities, more than I actually did. With this book, Marie NDiaye was the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt in 2009, the most important French literary prize. And I can see why she did. The prose is wonderfully beautiful in places, the narrative meandering but also incredibly direct at times. All of the stories leave you with a feeling of discomfort, making you feel disturbed and a little claustrophobic to imagine the situation of these women.. And despite knowing this, they slowly but surely pull you into their world.
I was never unaffected by the stories, but nor was I riveted, or did I feel that I simply had to read on, had to know what happened next.
That is, for the first 20 pages of Norah and Khady’s story, I did not experience a sense of urgency. And urgency is not exactly the word to describe what I experienced while reading these stories as I progressed past those first pages. But there was something very convincing about them. The very experience of discomfort and claustrophobia was what made me want to continue reading, to find out what would happen, even if I knew, just knew, they would end on a tragic note. In the end, I can only conclude that the first and third story are beautifully written and of such high quality. I am writing this days later and I still find myself returning to these settings, the other possible outcomes, the women’s characters..
I think the only complaint I have about them is that Norah’s story felt too open-ended. Exactly because I had just comfortably (though that is hardly the correct word for the situation described) settled into her world, her fears, and her thoughts and agency, I wanted to know more, so much more of what would happen next. In a sense this will give you a peek of the kind of quality storytelling that is going on here. But it also left me a tiny bit unsatisfied.
If this collections would have consisted of the first and the third story, with possibly another second, I would have been utterly convinced by it. However, I cannot ignore how much I did not care for the second story. For a story that makes up almost half of the book, as it is the longest story in the collection, coming to 134 pages, it needed to be so much more than it was.
I have been wondering what it was exactly that made me shrug every time I attempted to continue reading, to find the place where I would start caring. I think in part it is due to the fact that the story is the most indirect, taking place in the conscious of Fanta’s husband Rudi, who reflects on his marriage with her and the latest fight they had. There are some interesting moments, when you slowly uncover why Rudi feels so much guilt instead of only the anger the story started out with, but these were a little too far apart, with a little bit too much meandering storytelling in between. To my taste, anyway.
There is one last thing I want to remark on, and it has to do with being completely honest with myself more than it has to do with the quality of this book. Here’s the thing. The third story made me realise how often I read for comfort, and how this sometimes makes me close my eyes to certain parts and problems of the world – despite the fact that I may go on about gender implications and the portrayal of religion in some posts. The third story, the story about Khady and her lonely and desperate attempts to survive, with Europe as her only hope.. It brought home, more than any other story I have read in the past few years, how incredibly unfair the world is. How Europe has a system of keeping out African immigrants that makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but to which we are often comfortably blind. The story made me realise how important it is to read for politics, for social awareness, as Amy does so incredibly well, as well as it is to read for comfort.
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I read this story as part of Paris in July 2012, hosted by BookBath and Thyme for Tea, “to celebrate our French experiences through reading, watching, listening to, observing, cooking and eating all things French.“