Three Strong Women
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2012
This book is exquisitely and powerfully written - well deserving of its Prix Goncourt - yet it is not one that I would recommend to anyone I know. The three separate stories, which relate to each other only by thin strands of connection, give us a glimpse into the strength of three Senegalese women. But their strength is not of the conquering and victorious kind. It is the burdened endurance of women who manage to pull forth some sense of dignity out of horrific circumstances.

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.
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24 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2012
That, at least, would be a more accurate title. However, even a more precise translation of the original as Three "Powerful" Women, still seems well wide of the mark: for number, for gender and for description. Here are three vaguely related short stories. In the first, Norah, an Afro-French female attorney comes to Africa at the urging of her estranged father. Peripherally to her own story, she meets Khady, caregiver to a pair of twins her father sired on his second wife. (We'll met Khady later). Determined to stand up to her father she soon capitulates to more than just his demands. The second story ostensibly gives us Fanta, an Africa woman who falls in love with and follows a European expat from Dakar to France. Problem is, we never catch even a glimpse of Fanta. All we know about her presumed misery, we get from the deranged and uncontrolled musings of her husband Rudy Descas. I found this the most interesting, if frustrating, of the stories.

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
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Marie NDiaye's THREE STRONG WOMEN, ("Trois femmes puissantes") is a complex and thought provoking book. It comprises three 'novellas', for lack of a better term, three fictional accounts that each explore one individual's life at a crucial moment in time. The protagonists find themselves in a transitional state of mind, brought on by specific events. For each of the women at the centre - Norah, Fanta and Khady - we are compelled to ask: Where to from here? However, the stories and each protagonist's circumstances are more complex than this question suggests and over the course of the three accounts we are given part answers and more suggestions, leaving us to imagine alternatives or, maybe, not.

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]
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 28, 2013
I can easily make the case against "Three Strong Women". I can point to the strange, breathless writing style Marie Ndiaye opts for, or to the way this isn't really a novel, or the thematic dissonance that makes little sense until the very end. I can point to the moments in the story at which I stalled, or to the characters I didn't like, or to the passages that made my blood boil. Instead, however, I will recommend this book. Because despite its many flaws, there is something powerful living within its pages, messages and ideas that I found both intriguing and illuminating.

"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.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2012
In some customer reviews readers wonder if the translation is to blame for what they see as the stiltedness of the prose. The text of the US edition was adapted for the American market, so if that is the version some customers are reading, it should be easier to follow than the UK edition, which was faithful to the original, warts and all. As one customer says, Marie NDiaye's style is characterised by a high ratio of adjectives to nouns. She also goes in for very long sentences. On a few occasions only did the translator feel entitled to break these up. As for the country in which the novel is set, all the press reviews say "Senegal" because that's where Mme NDiaye's father comes from. But in the text she is careful not to name any locations, because she no doubt intends the settings to be unspecific. All she seems to want us to know is that an African country is involved, and a region in France where wines are made in chateaux. That would indicate the Bordeaux region, but Marie NDiaye nowhere says so.
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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2012
This is the story of three strong women, Norah, Fanta and Khady, whose lives are interconnected.
We meet Norah first. Long ago, her African father abandoned his French wife and daughters to return to Africa, taking his only son with him. Norah, now a trained lawyer, works in Paris. A single mother, she has been living for a while with Jakob and his daughter. Norah is not particularly happy: she finds life with Jakob very trying. Then she receives a summons from her father; he begs her to drop everything and travel to Africa. When she learns the truth about what has been going on in her father's house throughout the long years during which he kept his French family at arm's length, Norah needs all the strength she can muster to deal with the issue.
In the second story, Fanta, a young African woman, is launched on a promising career as a teacher in the country's top lycée. There she meets and marries a French colleague, Rudy, and they have a son. But their happiness is short-lived. For reasons that gradually become clear, Rudy is dismissed from his post and the couple are forced to relocate to the small town in France where Rudy's widowed mother lives. Having failed to get a teaching post in France, Fanta finds her marriage starting to disintegrate. Then one day, as he leaves for work, Rudy is forced to confront his past. Part Two ends with him collecting his son from school, determined to try and make Fanta happy again.
In Part Three, Khady - who had once worked as a cook and nanny for Norah's father - is desperate for a child of her own. But her husband dies suddenly and she is forced to move in with her in-laws. As a childless woman she is an encumbrance, so they pay for her to be smuggled to France where, they say, her cousin Fanta is doing well and can be expected, once Khady joins her, to start sending them money. As her dolorous odyssey unfolds Khady, who is proud of her inner strength, finds that she needs every ounce of it to pursue the journey to its terrible end.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2012
Beautifully written, but among the most unrelentingly depressing books I have ever read and I read a lot. Translation is occasionally clunky as well.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
"Trois femmes puissantes": the adjective in the French title, more normally translated "powerful," suggests women in business suits, at the helm in politics or industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. True, Norah, the protagonist of the first novella, has a law degree; but, child of a French mother and Senegalese father, she has had to earn money in a fast food restaurant to put herself through school, and now when she returns to Senegal to visit her aging father, she is still so much under his power that she wets herself at the table. Fanta, the Senegalese woman in the long middle novella, is not even the protagonist, but remains entirely in the background of the story, which follows a day in the life of her white husband, a weak mama's boy who fails at home, fails at work, and is even despised by his own son. And Khady, the central character of the third novella, is one of nature's victims. A young widow, pretty but undereducated, she is thrown out by her late husband's family since she has failed to bear him a child, and blindly follows one man and then another who are taking her she knows not where.

I call these novellas in recognition of their length (80, 146, and 66 pages respectively), but in fact they are interconnected in several ways, from the trivial to the truly meaningful. Each separate story mentions characters, places, or events from the other two, though these connections are relatively slight. More significantly, they are linked by NDiaye's signature style, a classic prose of meticulous interior narration whose controlled surface is broken by almost surreal images that repeat in all three stories: birds of prey, wings, angels, the cloying scent of a flowering tree, phosphorescence, melting bitumen, and debilitating physical infirmities (incontinence, piles, a wound that will not heal). They are linked by recurrent themes: unequal marriages, parenthood, violence, and even murder. And of course they are linked by that title; if these women are strong, where is strength to be found?

The three stories move in different directions: Norah grows to find her own kind of strength; Khady, in her journey from having nothing to having even less, may find some vestige of strength within herself; and Fanta, who is seldom seen, demonstrates a kind of strength simply by remaining as she is, unchanged. One also feels that, in addition to writing about three individuals, NDiaye is also writing about the condition of Senegalese women generally, whether of mixed race like Norah and herself, brought out of Africa by a white husband like Fanta, or simply lacking the minimum attributes for surviving in Senegalese life like Khady Demba.

I started this in the original French, but kept this wonderfully nuanced translation by John Fletcher at my side as a crutch, since NDiaye's writing, for which she won the coveted Prix Goncourt, is not easy. I turned to Fletcher entirely for the long second story, but read the third in French alone; it was a rather different experience in each case.* NDiaye has a curious narrative style, starting in near immobility and gradually accelerating towards the end as nightmarish elements, some of extreme violence, surface in both the back-story and the present-day action. You may be tempted to put the book down after a few dozen pages, but resist it; the pay-off at the end is certainly worth it, and the cumulative effect of the three is greater still.

*I did discover one very curious thing. This English version entirely omits the final paragraph of the last narrative (though retains its one-paragraph epilogue). So Khady's story, which in the French ends in the equivalent of a period, here tails off in an ellipsis. It is not an ineffective ending, but I wonder if it was approved by the author, and if so why she did not do this in the French version also?
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2012
I picked up Three Strong Women after seeing that it made it onto the NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2012 and after quickly reading it was impressed by the style and substance of writing and am ready to recommend it to my friends and reading colleagues. The book itself really feels like three novellas all packed into one. There are three distinct stories all focused on a woman who made decisions that seemed right at the time but in the end unfortunately didn't work out well. The first story is about a woman named Norah who is a lawyer by trade and is asked by her estranged father to come back and visit him in order to help bail out her equally estranged brother from jail. This story is really the best of the three in my opinion and is a study in gluttony and bad choices. The second story I believe is less about a woman (Fanta) than it is a man. The story itself focuses much of its time on her boyfriend who is a bumbling idiot and makes the life of the two of them hell while living in France. To say this second story is about a strong woman is a bit misleading in my opinion. Finally, the third story is also quite good. It is about a woman named Khady whose husband dies after three short years of marriage and she is forced to strike out on her own and make a life for herself after being thrown out on the street by her in-laws. A very touching and sad story. All three stories are individually good and are worth reading. The book moves very quickly and is a very good read. I highly recommend it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2014
I would recommend this book to women who have felt challenged in their lives and question their own level of success. This is certainly not a book to read on the beach but one on which to reflect. The writing style is very distinctive. You are inside of someone's head as they reflect on where they are, what they have done, and what is happening to them as a result. You really feel that for a short time you are in someone else's skin.
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