Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

Three Strong Women, though not always easy to read, is a wonderful novel: psychologically rich, surprising in structure and choice of perspective, experimental and challenging. You could open the book expecting a straightforward narrative about three women and though you do indeed read in detail about three women’s lives, it’s not always in the ways you might expect.

Norah has struggled to forge a life for herself in Paris despite being abandoned by her rich father who left her and her mother and sister when they were small. He went back to Senegal taking, without any discussion, their little brother with him.

Now a lawyer and a parent, the novel follows her return to Dakar in response to her father’s call for help. She is shown to her brother’s room. Where is he? Where is her father’s most recent wife? Why is the house so quiet?

Fanta married a white man and emigrated to France, but life in Europe isn’t everything she might have hoped for. Everything we learn about her comes from her husband’s fevered mind. Rudy is volatile and traumatised and as we follow a day in his troubled life, we can’t help but take in the sorry history of his and Fanta’s marriage as we go.

And then there is Khady, brought up by her grandmother who had no choice but to take Khady in when her parents abandoned her. Khady whose kind husband dies and leaves her childless, who has no relatives or money, and so must live with her resentful in-laws who only want to be rid of her. ‘She was happy to be Khady, there had never been any dubious chink between herself and the implacable reality of the person called Khady Demba.’ (p224)

To describe Khady as stoic, even though she would have no knowledge of the heritage of this philosophical outlook, stretches the word to its very limit as she is forced to embark on a journey to Europe.

Not only are all three women’s stories linked, each woman seems to represent one of the many ways in which the lives of the people of Senegal can connect with France. Norah has fought to become part of the French middle classes. Fanta has had to face the difficulties of taking African qualifications to France. Khady is from the poorest background and her hardships extreme.

Each section is also presented with a counterpoint, a differing viewpoint that adds to the main body of each woman’s story and in a way each story takes the idea of viewpoint, the bird’s eye view, and explores it differently. We have: Norah’s father perching in the flame tree; Rudy feeling pursued by a buzzard he believes is sent by an avenging Fanta; Khady’s observation of birds, in particular crows, and her ending. Three Strong Women is partly an exploration of the multiplicity of story, the plethora of perspective that makes the world such a vivid and complex place.

It is easy to see why Marie NDiaye is so highly praised. Three Strong Women is one of those novels that forces you to look at things differently. I know I will go back to it and can’t wait to read more of NDiaye’s work.

This week I’m reading The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker.

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