Three Strong Women Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Aug 7 2012
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Best of 2012, San Francisco Chronicle
Starred Review: Library Journal, Kirkus Book Reviews
“A writer of the highest caliber…NDiaye is a hypnotic storyteller with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives…Clearsightedness—combined with her subtle narrative sleights of hand and her willingness to broach essential subjects—gives her fiction a rare integrity that shines through the sinuous prose…Through the distorting lenses of madness and deprivation, NDiaye manages nonetheless to convey a redemptive realism about how the world works, and what makes people tick…A masterpiece of narrative ingenuity, Three Strong Women is the poised creation of a novelist unafraid to explore the extremes of human suffering.”
—Fernanda Eberstadt, The New York Times Book Review (Cover review)
“Gorgeous, fearless prose…NDiaye’s storytelling approaches something of the power and simplicity of folklore. There is good and evil here, and as in the world they are blended confusingly and only slowly revealed. In the interplay between Europe and Africa, between men and women, NDiaye finds both beauty and beast.”
—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe
“Hypnotic…Powerful…Compelling…[NDiaye] is an impressive stylist with a strong voice…A novel that examines bravely and from both sides the collision of Europe and Africa.”
—Thomas Chatterton Williams, San Francisco Chronicle
“Passionate and unsettling…Rich, sensuous…Three Strong Women is a major work of world literature...A rare novel, capturing the grand scope of migration, from Africa to Europe and back, and the inner lives of very different people caught between pride and despair. And NDiaye is a rare novelist, whose arrival in America is long overdue.”
—Jason Farago, NPR
“A tenuously linked tripartite novel that is more than the sum of its parts is a hard act to pull off. Marie NDiaye, one of France’s most exciting prose stylists and playwrights, succeeds with elegance, grit and some painful comedy in Three Strong Women…Its three heroines have an unassailable sense of their own self-worth, while their psychological battles have an almost mythic resonance…The prose compels with astonishing range and precision.”
—Maya Jaggi, The Guardian (UK)
“NDiaye’s quiet intelligence is made apparent by the complexity of her characters and her intuitive prose in this subtly beautiful novel.”
“Captivating and unsettling …with spare prose and evocative imagery…John Fletcher’s translation conveys the richness and precision of language for which NDiaye is renowned in the French-speaking world…In each of the novel’s characters, strength and weakness, violence and vulnerability are as intertwined as the quotidian and the extraordinary in NDiaye’s storytelling…A multifaceted glimpse of lives too rarely seen in print.”
—Sara Kaplan, Ms.
“Compelling…NDiaye dissects her characters with impressive forensic detail, the subtlest speech inflection or gesture put under the microscope…The language has an hypnotic emotional intensity…the novel has a passion, daring and individuality.”
—Bernardine Evaristo, The Independent (UK)
“Sinewy and sardonic, combining realism and fable in a way that mixes Kafka and Cinderella…Three Strong Women is full of NDiaye’s narrative gusto, stylistic virtuosity and command of tone…The power the stories reveal is that of self-knowledge, self-belief and endurance.”
—Michael Sheringham, Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“A beautiful novel…NDiaye’s writing is extraordinarily powerful, and she is very well served by John Fletcher’s elegant, economical translation.”
—The Times (UK)
“The beauty of her language, the strange force of her inspiration, her mastery of narrative have established her as one of the important figures in French literature…[she] opens up the mysterious world of the most secret thoughts.”
“Here is the beauty of Marie NDiaye’s novel: a fire burning in the heart of a cold and frozen existence.”
—Journal du Dimanche
“Between Africa and France, her enchanted heroines, cursed by history, cast their nets, and glowing with their hard-won freedom—strong women even taking off towards death.”
“A sumptuous classicism…Proust and Faulkner conversing under African skies… one of our greatest writers.”
“Mastery of form carried to extraordinary levels… velvety prose, wise and precise—a frighteningly just, real, dignified, and poignant vision of suffering humanity.”
“A masterly work, served by an exacting, intense, and bewitching prose, implacably apt throughout, transporting us to the edge of the strange and the imaginary,. Three Strong Women surely established Marie Ndiaye as one of the most eminent “writer-storytellers” of our time.
—Rentrée Littéraire 2009
“Sinuous long phrases, at times brutal, at times sweet, underline and follow the emerging consciousness of these African women in their quest for identity...Riveting, hypnotizing prose.”
“Strength. That is the word that would suffice to summarize the genius of this work…NDiaye’s new novel has the force of a fist. ”
About the Author
Marie NDiaye was born in Pithiviers, France, in 1967; spent her childhood with her French mother (her father was Senegalese); and studied linguistics at the Sorbonne. She started writing when she was twelve or thirteen years old and was only eighteen when her first work was published. In 2001 she was awarded the prestigious Prix Femina literary prize for her novel Rosie Carpe, and in 2009, she won the Prix Goncourt for Three Strong Women.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Marie NDiaye's prose is gripping. Even in scenes without physical action, the psychological suspense and tension keeps the reader tightly bound. I was reminded at times of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Yet it is partly this powerful writing that left me heavy-hearted. I was emotionally bound to characters who were experiencing untold depths of painful emotions, which made this book a hard one to put down, and yet a very difficult one to read.
Of the uniformly sad fates, the most tragic is Khady's in the third story. Married while still a child to a kindly and loving man, Khady moves, as tradition dictates, to her new in-laws. After just three years, she is left both widowed and childless and, thus, of no further use to his family. They pack a small bag of her possessions, give her a packet of money and send her off to find a cousin, Fanta, living, they say, very successfully in France. Khady is entirely unprepared by her life's experience to make this journey and triumph over the evils she will undoubtedly face. The choices she makes based on her third-world ignorance and naivete have predictable and utterly harrowing consequences.
With Three Strong Woman, Marie NiDaye became the first black woman to be awarded the Prix Goncourt, perhaps France's highest literary prize. English-language awards frequently stir controversy with idiosyncratic choices that many think belie their mission of celebrating the highest achievements in arts and letters. Never have I felt this more keenly than with this 2009 award-winner recently translated into English.
Admittedly, from the title, I expected something different. But, apart from that, I was puzzled and unsatisfied by what I did find on the pages. Call me old-fashioned, but I care about plot, character and narrative. I couldn't understand the choices made by the characters or by the author herself. Actions and consequences about which I expected to feel passionately left me confused and ambiguously distanced, the result I believe of an oblique style of exposition and the accretion of strange, often meaningless observations and details. Admittedly, I do not have the literary chops of the jury for the Prix Goncourt, but I just didn't get it.
Three Strong Women
NDiaye imagines her central characters caught in a kind of fault line between (West) Africa and France with all that this can represent. One underlying theme is that of individuals moving in one direction or another between France and Senegal, changing places, whether visiting/living/dreaming. Norah, a successful Paris-based lawyer, a young mother with a complicated personal life, is suddenly summoned back to Senegal by a father she hardly remembers. What does he want from her and how will they reconnect, if at all? This story appears to be inspired (or more) by the author's personal experience. NDiaye defines herself as French, born in France and raised by her French mother. Her connection to Senegal and to her father is as slight as that of her heroine... however, for Norah it is somebody else who draws her back and who impacts her future moves. Fanta, a hidden yet very central presence in the second story, appears to have succeeded in bridging the two worlds while Khady... well, nothing more should be revealed. The last story is for me one of the most haunting accounts about people caught in the transcontinental fault line that I have read in a long time. Brilliant in its portrayal, devastating in its substance. Yet, Khady is the one who believes in hope, in her identity and, through her experiences, gains in self-confidence: "She hadn't really lost very much, she would think later"; she wouldn't regret the past either.
NDiaye's book comes alive not only through its beautiful language - I read it in the French original - but also through her probing of the many contrasts and opposites that are the building blocks for a life. Her writing is precise and detailed in conveying her characters' inner voices; yet, their thought processes are not always easy to comprehend on first reading. Her depiction of their close physical environments is highly evocative: nature can be threatening, deafening, as well as calming and refreshing, once the sun sets over the dry and dusty land and the debilitating heat subsides, whether in Africa or in France. In the first story, for example, Norah's father retreats for the night into an ancient flame tree growing behind the house to enjoy the cooling air...
Complementing her realistic descriptions of circumstances and surroundings, the author introduces recurring symbols and metaphors that hint at something beyond the reality that we and the protagonist perceive. For instance, birds and wings take special meaning and appear in all three novellas in different forms. In one, they are not just noisy companions and observers, but especially threatening in the mind's eye of the protagonist. They seem to play games with the human mind... Last but not least, at the end of each section/story NDiaye teases us with a short paragraph, titled "Counterpoint" that suggests a different perspective or conclusion of what we just read.
Going back to the attribute "puissant" in French and "strong" of the English title (or 'powerful' as some have suggested as a better translation) is worth an additional comment. At the surface none of the women are particularly strong or powerful. Their inner strength is only slowly revealed by the sensitive and richly imagined narrative. I see NDiaye's "Three Strong Women" as a kind of triptych: three distinct portrayals of women's experiences living between two continents and cultures. Seen together, they depict three alternatives of human experiences for women, and to a lesser degree for men, when exposed to the constant inner and outer tensions in their lives as they are trying to negotiate the fault lines. Marie NDiaye is an established award winning French author. For Trois femmes puissantes she won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2009. [Friederike Knabe]
"Three Strong Women" is a book that many readers have hated, and will likely continue to hate. This is a divisive book, not because of its actual content (though there are moments that made me nauseous with anger...), but rather because of how its presented. This isn't a novel, but I would also hesitate to call it a "collection" - the three stories that comprise this book (a word we can all agree on) have clear thematic threads running through them that tie the book together as a whole. What these threads are, however, is a matter for discussion.
The truth is that "Three Strong Women" can be read in any of a number of ways. It can be read as a distinctly conservative book, viewing women through masculine filtered lenses. It can be read as a feminist book, with each woman braving difficult situations in different ways. But there is a third option, one that looks at the various contradictions in style and story throughout "Three Strong Women" - and the very title - and sees a book that uses irony deftly and cleverly. Ndiaye treats each of her women with care, even as we realize the ways in which each allegedly "strong" woman is actually submissive, undefined and weak. There is an unattainable independence for Norah, Fanta and Khady, a certain strength that they cannot seem to find.
This is not a pleasant read. Ndiaye's writing is often uncomfortably convoluted, but there's a certain beauty in it as well. Ndiaye enters painful, difficult scenes with ease, making the reader feel every inch of the characters' discomfort. It's not the most pleasant or beautiful writing style, though I'll admit that once I got used to it, I quite enjoyed it. The characters similarly do not make "Three Strong Women" a breeze. Most are unpleasant in some form or other (I personally related only with the star of the final story, and then only because of superficial reasons), almost all have multiple levels of gray filters to them. No clear-cut characterizations here. Difficult to read, but the overall effect is quite powerful.
I don't want to say much about the stories themselves (for fear of ruining them), but know this: Ndiaye does not believe in easy answers. None of the stories in "Three Strong Women" end with a neatly tied ribbon and "happily ever after". There is a grim realism in this approach, and coupled with powerful, short epilogues for each of the stories, the result is... striking. Not pleasant, again, but very, VERY interesting.
Does this seem like a lukewarm recommendation? It probably is. "Three Strong Women" is by no means for all readers. In fact, I would say that it is for a very specific type of reader - one who does not mind the ambiguities, complexities and general in-story unpleasantness housed within the pages of these three stories. Ndiaye's book is strange and difficult, but it is thoroughly readable and incredibly thought-provoking. Readers seeking something ELSE - keep this one in mind.