‘Three Strong Women’ by Marie N’Diaye

Three Strong Women book coverLike the three strong women in her book, Marie N’Diaye is strong: strong-minded enough to leave France after criticising Sarkozy to live in Berlin. Her writing career is strewn with prizes, being the first writer to win both the Prix Femina and the Prix Goncourt. She won the Goncourt for this book, Three Strong Women and it also took the Berlin World Literature Prize. She is a playwright too with her play Papa doit manger (Daddy’s got to eat) being taken into the repertoire of the Comédie Française. It is a funny absurdist piece with echoes of Ionesco. This volume is translated by the prize winning John Fletcher.   The three stories concern three Senegalese women and, apart from vague references that seem to link the stories, the link that matters is the trials and torments that, in their different ways, they are exposed too.

Norah has left Dakar for a successful career as a lawyer in France.   A single mother who has just embarked on a new relationship with a man and his own daughter, she answers a summons from her father to return. Her once powerful, in every sense, father is now a shrunken shell of his former self.   It transpires that her task will be to try and get her brother out of jail where he is awaiting trial for a murder he has confessed to. But the story is even more complex: he is alleged to have murdered his step-mother.   It emerges that the son has had a passionate affair with her, that her children are probably his and that we begin to wonder if the son is confessing to protect his father. There are elements of magical realism to add to the mix and the still powerful pull the father seems to exert on his daughter.

Fanta’s story is revealed through the tormented mind of her white French husband. Fanta has followed him to France when he lost his teaching job in Senegal but the move has made her unqualified to teach in France. Rudy’s feelings of inadequacy, the crippling effects of his domineering mother and the knowledge that he has let Fanta down gradually overwhelm him and the symbolic figure of a black buzzard that menaces him drives him to what looks like the point of collapse and yet, unexpectedly, the story ends on a hopeful note.

Maria N'Diaya portraitFor Khady, however, nothing goes right and she is driven further and further down by circumstances. At the start, she is a childless widow, expelled by her late husband’s family. As one of the endless flow, or do I mean flood, of refugees seeking an illusory paradise in Europe, she is befriended, betrayed, exploited and abandoned. She seems, towards the end, to be approaching a Spanish enclave in North Africa, surrounded by a fence that is both real and symbolic. The story will end there.

These are moving, beautifully crafted and written stories that are, especially the last, of increasing topicality: an illustration of how fiction can more powerfully tell the facts than any official, factual account.   Good reading for Lent! Deny yourself cheerfulness: you know it’s good for you!

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