“Three Strong Women” by Marie Ndiaye, Winner of the Prix Goncourt, etc.

“Three Strong Women” by Marie Ndiaye  (2009)  – 293 pages    Translated by John Fletcher

The English translation of “Three Strong Women” by French author Marie Ndiaye was published here in the United States last month.  This collection of three novellas won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2009 and since then has won the International Literature Prize and the European Literature Prize. 

 The title is a bit of a misnomer since the main characters of the first and third novellas are women, but the main character of the long second novella is a man.  Perhaps the author is referring to the man’s wife.

 In each of the three novellas Marie Ndiaye puts you deep inside the head of the main character.  These are all very emotional stories involving family.  There is a lot of anger, bitterness, pain, and remorse in these stories.  In the first story, the daughter is the main character and she was rejected at an early age by her wheeler-dealer father who is “deeply shocked and repelled by ugliness” even in his own daughters.  She went on to become a lawyer.  In the second story a husband is the main character, and his wife had an affair with his boss two years before; the husband is terribly afraid the affair is continuing.   This story is a one-day trip into the deranged depths of existence, into hell.  In the third story a woman is kicked out of her in-laws’ house after her husband dies, because she was unable to bear any children during the three years they were married.  It is those closest to us who can hurt us the most, and we can in turn hurt them the most. 

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I’m very impressionable while I’m reading novels, easily influenced by feelings and actions within a story.  I don’t remain cool, calm, or collected or objective or detached when reading these intense stories.  That is the strength of the stories; they make you feel the anger and the pain.  Ndiaye is masterful in conveying the situations in which these strong emotions originate.  This is not an easy book; the sentences are sometimes long and involved, and the intensity of reading just a few pages at a time wore me out.  However the writing is of a high quality and definitely worth the effort. 

These affecting stories are not for the faint of heart.  Impressionable as I am, perhaps I identified too closely with this guy in the second story who is on the edge of insanity for the entire story.  Strong as this story is, reading this story was almost too painful for me.

These are powerful novellas.  Can you handle them?  I almost couldn’t.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. She has been on my radar for quite a while and I have two of her older books but this sounds much better. I would have to pick the right moment for reading it though. There were quite a few discussions on my blog when I reviewed Delphine de Vigan’s Underground Time ( a fantastic novel) as she was short listed together with Ndiaye and many thought she would have deserved it more. She is a much more gentle writer. Still I’d like to read this as well.

    Reply

  2. Hi Caroline,
    I hadn’t heard about ‘Three Strong Women’ until the translation was published here a month ago. I do try to read Prix Goncourt winners. So far this year I’ve read ‘Three Strong Women’ and HHhH, both excellent. HHhH will certainly be near the top of my year end list. ‘Three Strong Women’ is very well-written bu also quite painful and might not make the list for that reason. I’m adding de Vigan to my TBR list as I see it has already been translated.

    Reply

  3. I’ve got Three Strong Women on my shelf (in the Hebrew translation, actually), and though I was obviously looking forward to reading it beforehand, I’m even more intrigued now. I’m also the type of reader who, er, feels things very strongly… It’s nice to know that I should be prepared!

    Reply

    • Hi Biblibio,
      Yes, be forewarhed, these are powerful intense novellas about family situations. The second one affected me most strongly maybe because it has a man as the main character, and it is the longest. I will be looking forward to your reaction to these novellas.

      Reply

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