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Trois Femmes Puissantes (Folio) [French] [Mass Market Paperback]

Marie NDiaye

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strength is Where you Find it 20 Mar 2013
By Roger Brunyate - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Trois femmes puissantes": the adjective in the French title, more normally translated "powerful," suggests women in business suits, at the helm in politics or industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. True, Norah, the protagonist of the first novella, has a law degree; but, child of a French mother and Senegalese father, she has had to earn money in a fast food restaurant to put herself through school, and now when she returns to Senegal to visit her aging father, she is still so much under his power that she wets herself at the table. Fanta, the Senegalese woman in the long middle novella, is not even the protagonist, but remains entirely in the background of the story, which follows a day in the life of her white husband, a weak mama's boy who fails at home, fails at work, and is even despised by his own son. And Khady, the central character of the third novella, is one of nature's victims. A young widow, pretty but undereducated, she is thrown out by her late husband's family since she has failed to bear him a child, and blindly follows one man and then another who are taking her she knows not where.

I call these novellas in recognition of their length (88, 160, and 74 pages respectively), but in fact they are interconnected in several ways, from the trivial to the truly meaningful. Each separate story mentions characters, places, or events from the other two, though these connections are relatively slight. More significantly, they are linked by NDiaye's signature style, a classic prose of meticulous interior narration whose controlled surface is broken by almost surreal images that repeat in all three stories: birds of prey, wings, angels, the cloying scent of a flowering tree, phosphorescence, melting bitumen, and debilitating physical infirmities (incontinence, piles, a wound that will not heal). They are linked by recurrent themes: unequal marriages, parenthood, violence, and even murder. And of course they are linked by that title; if these women are strong, where is strength to be found?

The three stories move in different directions: Norah grows to find her own kind of strength; Khady, in her journey from having nothing to having even less, may find some vestige of strength within herself; and Fanta, who is seldom seen, demonstrates a kind of strength simply by remaining as she is, unchanged. One also feels that, in addition to writing about three individuals, NDiaye is also writing about the condition of Senegalese women generally, whether of mixed race like Norah and herself, brought out of Africa by a white husband like Fanta, or simply lacking the minimum attributes for surviving in Senegalese life like Khady Demba.

I started this in the original French, but kept the wonderfully nuanced translation by John Fletcher at my side as a crutch, since NDiaye's rich and somewhat formal writing, for which she won the coveted Prix Goncourt, is not easy. I turned to Fletcher entirely for the long second story, but read the third in French alone; it was a rather different experience in each case. NDiaye has a curious narrative style, starting in near immobility and gradually accelerating towards the end as nightmarish elements, some of extreme violence, surface in both the back-story and the present-day action. You may be tempted to put the book down after a few dozen pages, but resist it; the pay-off at the end is certainly worth it, and the cumulative effect of the three is greater still.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where to from here? 1 April 2013
By Friederike Knabe - Published on
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Marie NDiaye's "Trois femmes puissantes", recently published in English under the title THREE STRONG WOMEN, is an original, complex and thought provoking book. It comprises three 'novellas', for lack of a better term, three fictional accounts that explore one individual's life at a crucial moment in time. The protagonists find themselves in a transitional state of mind, brought on by specific events. 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.

NDiaye's book 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. 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, 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, born in France and raised by her French mother. 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. Marie NDiaye is an established award winning French author. For Trois femmes puissantes she won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2009. [Friederike Knabe]
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Skillful and moving 2 Dec 2013
By Martha O'Brien - Published on
Format:Mass Market Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is a most interesting and skillfully-written book. The stories are moving and eye-opening. Definitely worth the time and effort!
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