This is my review of Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye.
Set mainly in Senegal where the author’s father, absent from her infancy, was born, the novel’s three untitled sections of varied length are very tenuously linked – for instance Khady, who makes a brief appearance in the first part is cast as the main character of the final section, making the perilous attempted migration to a better life in Europe. Apart from Senegal and women who have been deserted or wronged by men, all the sections seem to have in common are originality in plot and style, with a frequent surreal, dreamlike quality.
In the first part Norah, qualified as a lawyer despite her upbringing in an impoverished single parent family, has responded to a mysterious summons to visit her father, who abandoned his family years before to make a fortune from running a Senegalese holiday village. He demands her help in representing Sony, the son he took with him when he left. Despite his intelligence and new-found wealth, Sony seems as damaged by past events as the mother and sisters from whom he was abruptly separated as a five-year-old.
At first, I was irritated by the long, complex, often repetitive sentences forming a stream of consciousness which requires intense concentration, plus the image of the father perched like a bird in the branches of the flamboyant tree growing by the porch is a little hard to take. My interest was caught when Norah begins to agonise over her relationship with the charming but irresponsible Jakob, berating herself for having allowed him to infiltrate her life. However, as with the drama involving Sony, none of this is ever fully developed. The denouement seems abrupt and ambiguous – perhaps it is the author’s intention to leave matters open to several interpretations.
In the middle section, it gradually emerges that the main protagonist, an incompetent kitchen salesman called Rudy, has been forced by a scandal to quit a teaching post in Dakar to return to France. His selfishness is apparent not only in his self-absorption, but also in misleading his Senegalese wife Fanta into thinking she will be able to teach in France. Her anger with him is symbolised by a menacing buzzard which continually haunts him: the author seems very keen on metaphorical birds.
Another obsession is with physical ailments: Norah is incontinent when embarrassed, Rudy suffers from piles and Khady is lamed by an injury too grave to heal without medical care.
The final part is the shortest, most conventional and best constructed of the three, but perhaps the bleakest in its theme of the exploitation of migrants, with the casually brutal treatment of women in particular.
Although there are some striking images in this book, the disconnected nature of the writing meant that I did not feel fully engaged with the characters. Nor was it clear to me in what ways Norah who seems to fall under her father’s spell, Fanta who makes so small an appearance, and Khady, buoyed up by the mantra-like sense of “being herself”, yet passively enduring the most appalling hardship, can be described first and foremost as “strong”.
The task of translating this unusual book seems particularly challenging, so it seems best read in the original French if possible.