22nd Jun 2012
Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye
About ten pages before the end of Three Strong Women I had to shut the book, get out of bed and walk very quickly around my room a couple of times.
Written by Marie NDiaye (in a translation here by John Fletcher) and awarded the Prix Goncourt, this is a novel bursting with vicious plot twists that make the reader want to physically run away and simultaneously keep reading.
I’m talking about a severe case of a love-hate, blessing-and-a-curse book with a sting which whips the reader across the face.
The narrative begins with Norah, a successful lawyer who, against her better judgement, leaves her young daughter with a new stepfather and goes to visit her own, abusive, father.
Upon arriving at her father’s house she finds that her younger brother, Sony, has been imprisoned for the murder of his stepmother.
Under pressure from her father, Norah becomes Sony’s defence lawyer and we leave her sinking into a world of flame trees and forgotten houses.
Fanta is the next of the title’s three woman, but NDiaye subverts her own title and presents the reader instead with Fanta’s husband, Rudy.
He is in agonies following a bitter row with Fanta and spends most of the day driving around in his much despised car; attempting to unravel what has gone wrong with his marriage.
Despite being the second of the Three Strong Women, Fanta’s inner monologue is never revealed and the only insights the reader has are delivered by Rudy’s cloyingly narcissistic ponderings.
Linking Norah and Fanta together is the third woman: Khandy Demba. As a relative of Fanta’s and a kitchen maid in Norah’s father’s house, she at first seems set for a fate similar to that of the other two women.
Stoic in the face of injustice, she retreats into her inner world as the people around her willing misunderstand and mistreat her. This is where the similarities end, as Khandy is swiftly reduced to an uncompromising existence that throws the trials faced by Norah and Fanta into stark relief.
The fate of NDiaye’s third woman is so brutal that it nearly negates the suffering of those women who’ve gone before her. NDiaye’s strength, however, lies in her ability to present the fall and resurrection of Khandy Demba without impinging upon Norah and Fanta. This delicate balancing of the brutal and the banal redeems Three Strong Women from becoming a clunking morality tale.
Now is usually the point in a review that I decide how many stars to give a book, and what recommended reads it should be paired with. But this is a book that defies any attempt at categorisation, and the person who tries to label it is embarking on a fruitless task (just take a look at the blurb on the hardback edition if you don’t believe me).
I’m glad I read it – but to recommend it to someone else would feel like a psychological ambush. So three stars? Four? Just read it. But maybe not if you value your endorphins.
Published by MacLehose, it’s available through Amazon priced at £13.29.
Rating: 3/5. Approach with caution.
Other recommended reading: Rosie Carpe, another of NDiaye’s novels and winner of the Prix Femina.