Few French writers can rival the success of Marie NDiaye, whose acclaim as a novelist and playwright is matched by her massive commercial success. At just 45, she has a quarter-century of best-selling books behind her, and in 2009 she became the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, France’s top gong for literature, for the passionate and unsettling novel Three Strong Women.
Yet for all her achievement, she remains nearly unknown in the United States. Just one of her previous books has made it to this country, published by a small university press. (A play of NDiaye’s was produced in New York in 2005, but Americans’ best chance to see her work thus far has been onscreen. NDiaye co-wrote the script for White Material, Claire Denis’ spectacular 2009 film, starring Isabelle Huppert as a coffee plantation owner in a nameless, war-ravaged postcolony.) So if it took a giant prize and a deceptive, airport-bookstore-friendly title to bring NDiaye’s new novel to America, so be it. Three Strong Women is a major work of world literature, and one that deserves a readership in English as well as in French.
The book opens in Dakar, where Norah, a lawyer, has been summoned from Paris to see her odious father. A once successful property magnate grown old and embittered, he incites in Norah a whole flood of contradictory emotions: residual affection constantly gives way to anger at “this unfeeling man, incomplete, detached.” He has no affection for her, nor for her young half-sisters who live in semi-abandonment elsewhere in the house. And to a degree, she’s past caring. What she craves is to see her younger brother Sony, whom her father abducted at age 5, destroying the life of their mother in the process. But Sony, once the pride of the family, is now in prison — and as Norah struggles to understand what he has done, her longstanding grievances with her father finally come to a head.
Before we can see the outcome of Norah’s story, however, the narrative suddenly shifts: We are in France, in the Gironde. We briefly see Fanta, a teacher who met her French husband, Rudy, in Dakar and has joined him in the French countryside. Aha, we think: Strong Woman No. 2. (The title is actually ironic: the original Trois femmes puissantes might be better translated as “Three Powerful Women,” yet each of the female protagonists is to some degree powerless.)
But NDiaye’s book is hardly the modish “interlocking narratives” novel it first appears to be. The author shows Norah from all angles — as a woman, a daughter, a lover, a sister — but our second strong woman is in fact largely absent. Instead, the author follows her impulsive and paranoid husband over the course of an epically horrible day; as he endures humiliations at work and at home, we see his guilt at having dragged Fanta to France, where she can’t find work, as well as the earlier cruelties of his colonist father in Senegal that haunt him still. “If he couldn’t manage to assuage his own conscience,” Rudy wonders, “how could he calm down and become a proper father? How could he get people to love him again?” The answer is: He won’t. Fanta, who appears only in Rudy’s crazed imaginings, seems to have abandoned him for her own grief; she may also be preparing to leave him for his boss, or perhaps that, too, is one of Rudy’s neurotic illusions.
The final and most intense section, back in Dakar, belongs to Khady, whom we briefly glimpsed working as a servant in Norah’s father’s house. If Norah and Fanta suffer from familial and romantic neglect, Khady’s troubles are graver: A young widow turned out of her late husband’s house, she tries to flee to Europe and endures such unspeakable horrors that she feels she is “walking towards her death.” In the book’s final pages, at the limbo zone between Africa and the EU border, she demonstrates a resilience she has in common with both Norah and Fanta — but under far more harrowing circumstances, and with a far grimmer outcome.
NDiaye’s prose, rendered into mostly supple English by John Fletcher, luxuriates in paragraph-long introspection and occasionally dips into the supernatural. Birds fly in out of nowhere in all three sections, auguries of change or death; Norah’s frail father keeps appearing somehow in the branches of a drooping poinciana tree, from which he sometimes descends on “tired, heavy wings.” Her rich, sensuous style takes some getting used to. But give it time. Three Strong Women is a rare novel, capturing the grand scope of migration, from Africa to Europe and back, and the inner lives of very different people caught between pride and despair. And NDiaye is a rare novelist, whose arrival in America is long overdue.