This isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for something cheerful. Because these three characters seem to have life against them, pushing at them, forcing not even a single smile from their drawn, tired faces.
Ouch, you’re probably thinking, not the book for me.
So thought I. As I made my way through the three stories, I decided to keep in mind the fact that she was the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, France’s top prize for literature, for this very book. And that she published her first novel at just 17 (she is now 45).
First we meet Norah, a lawyer, summoned from France to Senegal by her intimidating father to defend her brother who is in prison for allegedly killing their father’s latest wife. Her own life in France is a strange one. She thinks of the man who has invaded her life and has attached himself firmly to her household. It’s odd and uncomfortable, yet she knows she cannot let him and his child go.
Then perhaps for me the hardest to read of the three, the story of Rudy and Fanta. Rudy being emotionally tortured, constantly fearful of Fanta leaving him. In just one day, we see his life crumble before our eyes, we learn of the events that drove him and his family from Senegal to this sorry existence struggling to make ends meet by selling customized kitchens. And for a man who might even be sleeping with his wife. Rudy is so very desperate for his wife:
“He was convinced that the flimsy, very flimsy and unstable, armature of his existence held together and only barely because, after all, Fanta was present, present more like a small hen whose clipped wings prevented her from flying over the lowest fence than like the bronze independent human being whom he’d met at the Lycée d’Mermoz.”
The last story takes Khady Demba (whom we first see working for Norah’s father from the first story) from a loving home when her husband dies and his family throws her out. She joins the many seeking to reach Europe, but with little money and wiles, she gets stuck in one of those nowhere towns, servicing men. Yet somehow Khady manages to see a glimmer of hope, and stay true to herself.
“She remembered her three years of marriage not as a time of serenity, because the longing, the humble desire for a child, had made each month a frantic climb toward a possible blessing, then, when her period came, a collapse followed by gloomy despondency before hope returned and, with it, the gradual, dazzling, breathless ascent day after day, right up to the cruel moment when a barely perceptible pain in her lower abdomen let her know that it hadn’t worked this time – no, those years had certainly been neither calm nor happy, because Khady never did get pregnant.”
I will say that if you’re not into long sentences, Three Strong Women might take some work. NDiaye after all wrote her Comédie Classique, a two-hundred page novel, with just a single sentence (!!).
So to say that Three Strong Women was a difficult read is an understatement. It is a painful, bleak read, full of suffering, yet these women still manage to hold onto their sense of humanity. Their stories offer just the slightest of a hint of redemption.
Three Strong Women has some gorgeous moments, a rich style, but is ultimately a rather exhausting read.
Novels and short stories
Quant au riche avenir – Minuit, 1985
Comédie classique – P.O.L, 1988
La femme changée en bûche – Minuit, 1989
En famille – Minuit, 1991
Un temps de saison – Minuit, 1994
La Sorcière – Minuit, 1996
Rosie Carpe – Minuit, Prix Femina 2001
Tous mes amis, nouvelles – Minuit, 2004
Autoportrait en vert – Mercure de France, 2005
Mon cœur a l’etroit – Gallimard, 2007
Trois femmes puissantes – Gallimard, Prix Goncourt, 2009
Hilda – Minuit, 1999
Papa doit manger – Minuit, 2003
Rien d’humain – Les Solitaires Intempestifs, 2004
Les serpents – Minuit, 2004
La diablesse et son enfant, illustration Nadja – École des loisirs, 2000
Les paradis de Prunelle, illustration Pierre Mornet – Albin Michel Jeunesse, 2003
Le souhait, illustration Alice Charbin – École des loisirs, 2005
La naufragée – Flohic, 1999
White Material (2009), co-wrote with director Claire Denis