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Two Inept Women and One Crazy Guy,
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This review is from: Three Strong Women (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 8, 2012 7:56:28 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 8, 2012 7:56:55 PM PDT
Deborah Toppan says:
You make some interesting points. However, I did find the author's descriptions of Norah's relationship with her live-in "significant other" very inciteful and thought provoking.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 16, 2012 8:23:48 PM PDT
Nikki Blum says:
Deborah: Thanks for your observation and taking the time to respond. I'm sure you'd agree that Norah, for all her insights and wisdom, had allowed herself to be manipulated in a relationship that was not what she wanted for herself or her child. It's now several months since I've read Three Strong Women, but mostly I remain uncertain about how these women showed themselves as strong. I really never understand why independent, capable, educated Norah ended up perched in a tree with her dad.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 19, 2012 6:42:32 AM PDT
Deborah Toppan says:
I totally agree...there were many parts that were quite strange and underwhelming.
Posted on Mar 20, 2013 5:21:11 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 20, 2013 5:21:59 PM PDT
Roger Brunyate says:
You offer a fine synopsis here without giving anything away. But I can see why it perplexed you. This is a very French novel, admittedly, and the French like to award their prizes to books that will make them feel intellectually superior just for getting through the things. I felt a little bit the same myself; after reading (and then reviewing) it, half in English and half in French, I am also inclined to acknowledge its difficulty by calling it a masterpiece. But then I really think it may be.
Let me throw out three thoughts. One, that the title is intentionally ironic; the women do have strength of a kind, but NDiaye's point is that it is not found where you would normally expect it. Second, that NDiaye is also to some extent a surreal writer, a point that I have not seen mentioned in any of the reviews here. While there is a surface level of literal narrative, there are also recurrent images that run through all three stories (birds, angels, wings, and lots more) that are not intended literally. And third, that she uses classic French (eg. Proustian) fine writing for deceptive effect, to lull the reader into an almost static interior monologue, only to roil the waters with violent revelations much later on.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 21, 2013 4:19:00 AM PDT
Nikki Blum says:
Roger, yours is a very well-considered opinion. Thanks for writing to me. I will have to think about your description of NDaye's writing as "Proustian." That definitely raises it to a new dimension. I definitely agree about French prizes, witness "Elegance of the Hedgehog." Personally, despite an early and profound romance with magical realism, I find myself just plain perplexed with most, if not all, surreal literature, eg. Roberto Bollano. Frankly, I just don't get it.
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