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

October 26, 2012 15 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.

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