“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.
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.