Three Strong Women
Marie NDiaye
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Buy *Three Strong Women* by Marie NDiaye online

Three Strong Women
Marie NDiaye
304 pages
May 2013
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Read this wonderful novel in its original French if you can. Not because I believe translator John Fletcher does an injustice to the talented Marie NDiaye’s stunning story, but because her powerful words in her own language must possess an even greater beauty masking the work’s strong ironies. However, if like me you do not read French, sink into this volume and enjoy the riches in English.

NDiaye is a respected playwright and novelist in her homeland of France. But she only recently began making an impact in the States. As an author she attracted attention before even coming of age approximately three decades ago. NDiaye won France’s top literature prize for this book, the Prix Goncourt. She was the first woman of color to win this honor.

Three Strong Women is in actuality three loosely linked stories. Be forewarned, you may spend some time teasing out the connections. As the title intimates, the primary theme is the ability of three women, in very different circumstances, to persevere. The women survive unloving fathers, needy husbands and selfish strangers. In this award-winning book, NDiaye cleverly questions our stereotypes of life in France, depicts the struggles of African immigrants, examines what really constitutes self preservation, debates the cost of valuing another over oneself, and depicts personal pride.

In Part I, Norah seems to have successfully overcome youthful disappointments to become an in-charge attorney in Paris. But outward appearances can be deceiving as a trip to her father’s home in Senegal proves. At the switch to Fanta’s story, I admit I harbored a fervent hope of circling back to Norah’s narrative. But quickly the hapless Rudy’s disintegrating day demands attention; even if the female lead of this story, Fanta, remains a shadowy character. Once living a contented life as a teacher in Dakar, Fanta follows her husband home to the French countryside and begins a ghostly existence as the unfortunate object of Rudy’s obsessive affection. In the third story, Khady Demba’s worsening situation after her husband dies reveals an admirable endurance and a breathtakingly strong sense of self-worth—leaving readers mulling over NDiaye’s trio of women challenging despair with deep reservoirs of pride.

NDiaye’s writing is lovely, even when describing the unlovely:

“The thought that her father, who’d had so many wives and children, that this not particularly handsome but brilliant, clever, quick-witted, and ruthless man who’d been born into poverty but made his fortune, and had since then always lived surrounded by a grateful and submissive crowd, that this spoiled individual now found himself alone and perhaps abandoned, fed a hazy old grudge that Norah harbored in spite of herself.”
And of the pitiable Rudy: “But he had no recollection of having opened his mouth, frozen as it was in a slack, feeble rictus.”

Throughout the book, wings and other bird-like features as well as actual birds, reinforce several characters’ needs to escape, to be punished, to search for potent omens.

“She shot him a sideways glance as the car started moving slowly and with difficulty out of the square that was now filled with minibuses and other big, heavy vehicles like theirs into which there clambered, or tried to, large numbers of people whose words and occasional shouts and cries mingled with the aggressive shrieks of the black-and-white crows flying low over the roadway—she looked at the man’s mouth, which never stopped twitching, and at the feverish quivering of his neck, and she thought then that the crows opened and closed their black beaks ceaselessly in much the same way, that their black-and-white breasts—black trimmed with white—jerked rhythmically in a similar fashion, as if life were so fragile that it had to signal, or warn of, how delicate and vulnerable it was.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Leslie Nichols Raith, 2014

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