"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.