Home > 2000, 21st Century, Audio books, Feminism, French Literature, Ndiaye Marie, Novel > Norah, Fanta, Khady Demba and many others we never hear of

Norah, Fanta, Khady Demba and many others we never hear of

October 26, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Trois femmes puissantes de Marie Ndiaye 2009. English title : Three Strong Women

Their names are Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba. They live in France or in Senegal or have lived in both countries. Their stories are not exactly linked but more adjacent like pieces of fabric composing a patchwork quilt. The novel is structured into three parts, each one relating the story of one woman.

The first part is for Norah and it’s her voice we’re hearing. At 38, she’s the daughter of a French hairdresser and a Senegalese. His father left his wife and children behind to go back to Senegal when Norah was a little girl and her mother struggled to raise her and her sister on her own. Now Norah’s father has begged her to come and visit him in Senegal. The novel starts when she arrives at her father’s house. As Norah gets reacquainted with her father’s way-of-life and adjusts to the changes, she recalls her childhood, analyses her present fears and her mixed feeling toward this man. Then she discovers why he called her.

The second part is for Fanta and the only image of her that we will have is through her husband’s eyes, Rudy Descas. He used to live in Senegal and met Fanta there when they both worked as teachers in a French high school. Fanta comes from a poor family and with a lot of work and willpower, she started a career as a teacher of French literature, quite an achievement for an African woman from her origin. We quickly understand that Rudy pushed her to move back to France but they never found work as teachers there. They are now living rather poorly, Rudy sells kitchens, Fanta doesn’t have a job and their marriage is falling apart. Rudy loves her madly but doesn’t seem to know how to show it anymore; he’s too embittered by his life and he feels like a failure.

The third part is the sour voyage from life to hell of Khady Demba, guilty of being a young widow with no children. When her in-laws throw her out of their house, she starts a voyage to the unknown with little experience, little education and no financial means.

Trois femmes puissantes is a tribute to all women who fight for their dignity through adversity. Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba have things in common: they fought to climb the social ladder, to achieve something and be independent. And men smash all their hard work. Norah’s father undermined her confidence from the start with his lack of interest in his daughters who were unfortunate not to be sons and girls who didn’t meet his definition of what a woman should be. Her partner messes up with the orderly life she has patiently built with her daughter in such a way that she feels that she admitted an enemy in her home. Her brother is the catalyst of two radical changes in her life, once as a child, once as an adult.

For Fanta, she fell in love with Rudy and following him to France was the beginning of her end. She couldn’t be a teacher there and she lost her identity. It’s difficult to have a clear portrait of Fanta because Rudy is the one who describes her. And dear, doesn’t he have heavy issues to cope with! His mother believes in angels and promotes angels through fliers. In France, I can tell you that a mother who leaves fliers around te enlighten her fellow citizens about the presence of angels among us is not seen as religious but as totally crazy.

For Khady Demba, the untimely death of her husband turns her life upside down in the most horrible way. After their in-laws have kicked her out, she’s the victim of other men too.

The three women remain strong in their mind and face the worse although sometimes their sanity wobbles. They stick to who they are and cling to their identity as a life-saver. They keep their dignity and Kadhy Demba’s attempts at dignity are the most poignant I’ve read in a long time.

The three stories are also an indirect thought about the relationship between France and Africa. Marie Ndiyae is black, her father is Senegalese. Her mother raised her as a single mom after her father left when she was a little girl. She has only met him a couple of times. She doesn’t feel African but she has mixed-blood and it can’t be discarded because it’s visible.

Although Trois femmes puissantes reveals terrible events, there is no useless pathos. Marie Ndiaye describes the inner minds of her protagonists –Norah, Rudy and Khady Demba –in a most realistic way. She’s analytical and with a dose of surreal elements sometimes. There’s a recurring pattern of birds in the three stories, a recurring pattern of bad luck. Fanta’s story appears less terrible than the two others, perhaps because she’s seen through Rudy’s eyes, she’s less real. Each part ends with a short paragraph, a sort of conclusion. It gives a feeling of an oral tale.

The novel is wonderfully composed and echoes to other forms of art. It’s a literary triptych of stoic and strong women, like iconic paintings put in churches. It’s a symphony with three movements, telling about women’s condition in general, in Senegal and in France in particular.

When Trois femmes puissantes was first published, I remember reading a glowing review of it and that the article included a quote from the book and I thought I wouldn’t like it. I picked it again by chance at the library, when I was looking for an audio book. I started listening to the audio version read by Dominique Blanc but it proved difficult to enjoy the beautiful prose of Marie Ndiaye while driving, therefore I eventually borrowed the paper edition. Dominique Blanc reads marvelously though, giving the rhythm of her steady voice to the rhythm of the author’s sentences. It could have been enchanting to hear it in good conditions.

You can also read reviews by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Iris at Iris On Books. Like Iris, I preferred the first and the last stories but Rudi’s struggle with his life and the terrible guilt he feels for not being able to make her precious wife happy got to me too.  I’m glad to say I was wrong to shy away from this book. Marie Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for this novel and it’s well-deserved. Although it wasn’t an easy read, I felt compelled to read further. This book has everything to become a classic: excellent and unique prose, universal theme and stories without obvious references to current events which anchor a book in its time.

  1. October 26, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    I really love Marie NDiaye’s writing. I haven’t read this novel, but Rosie Carpe thrilled me with its strange, disturbing uniqueness, and I also enjoyed an earlier novel, Les sorcieres. I think she’s a truly exciting new voice and I will definitely be reading more of her work.


    • October 27, 2012 at 7:43 am

      I agree with you. Her writing is excellent literature. For example, I really liked Virginie Despentes but Marie Ndiyae is definitely above her in style. I don’t know how to say it but there’s something permanent in her writing that makes me think that it will still sound good in 50 years.


  2. October 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    This sounds good, but I’m not sure if it’s to my taste. Like you I am buried in books and trying not to buy unless driven by compulsion.


    • October 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      I’m not sure you’d like the style but it’s worth reading. She’s gifted.


  3. October 28, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Though I have not read this author, I really love well laid out character studies. This sounds like a great book!


    • October 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      It’s a great book for the story but also for the literary aspect.


  4. October 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    I’m with Guy on this one. It sounds well written, but not perhaps for me. Given how buried I am at present I’m also trying not to buy unless driven by compulsion. A common issue it seems.


    • October 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      Strange that you should say that because I would have recommended it to you. Sans hésitation.

      I’m never half as buried at work as you are but I’ve been away last week and now I need to catch up. I’m on a book buying ban for now too. Shelves are heavy with unread books and kindle ones are invisible but still there…


      • November 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm

        Why particularly for me? I may reconsider…


        • November 5, 2012 at 11:16 pm

          Because of the style and the stories.

          She writes beautifully and describes with precise and simple words the inner minds of her characters. Although I haven’t read the books, it reminded me of your reviews of Ann Quinn or Murphy. There’s something about her prose which is Duras-like but without being incomprehensible. It’s hard to describe. Here is the first paragraph:

          And the man waiting for her at the entrance to the big concrete house—or who happened to be standing in the doorway—was bathed in a light so suddenly intense that it seemed to radiate from his whole body and his pale clothing: yet this short, thickset man before her, who’d just emerged from his enormous house and was glowing bright as a neon tube, no longer possessed, Norah straightaway realized, the stature, arrogance, and youthfulness once so mysteriously his own as to seem everlasting.

          (translation: John Fletcher)

          Plus usually you enjoy stories about the condition of women.


    • October 31, 2012 at 8:19 pm

      Is the book buying ban thing an end-of-year phenomenon? I’m holding back too, but recently caved on Oliver VII and My First Wife


      • November 4, 2012 at 8:48 pm

        For me, it’s inventory best practices: more books come in than books go out of the TBR shelf. Not good.


        • November 5, 2012 at 6:48 pm

          Me too. I need more being read than coming through the door. I can come to terms with needing longevity treatments to get through my current TBR pile, but if I buy faster than I read I could live a million years and still not get through it.


  5. October 31, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I bought it as well after having read 4 reviews on other blogs. Yours is the 5th.
    Violet wrote about it after Stu and Tony from Tony’s Book World (another Tony but very interested in European literature).
    I remember at the time of the Despentes review you thought she should have received the prize not Ndiyae. 🙂
    After all these reviews I’ll probably pick La sorcière before this but I’m glad to hear you liked it as well. I was always afraid she might be a bit in the vein of Herta Müller.


    • November 4, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      I can confirm I wouldn’t have bought this book; it’s just a matter of chance that I was looking for an audio book at the library.
      I don’t think I mentioned that about the Despentes, the books weren’t published the same year.
      Nothing like Herta Müller, fortunately.
      I’m curious about your review of La Sorcière.


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