Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What Did the Book Club Think of Marie NDiaye's "Three Strong Women"?

Three Strong Women first came to my attention as a book club pick when we were planning out our summer book club 24 brochure. Stacie noted that Marie NDiaye's novel had won the Prix Goncourt and had gotten a good amount of review attention. We'd sold several copies in hardcover, which indicated to me there was interest in the book, and I was intrigued that NDiaye was the first woman of color to be awarded this prestigious prize.

Marie NDiaye (photo credit Catherine Hélie) received even more attention to her reaction to the prize, as opposed to the prize itself. She spoke out against the Sarkozy government, particularly its surveillance programs, and a leading member of Parliament proposed she be asked to recant. It's all in this Christian Science Monitor article from Robert Marquand.

I saw Three Strong Women described as a tryptich, much like I did Boleto, Alyson Hagy’s book that is also now featured on our book club 24 brochure. But unlike Hagy’s work, NDiaye’s three parts are only remotely connected. Major characters in one section are sometimes referenced in another section, and two of the narratives do take place in in the town of Dara Salam.

In Part One, Norah is dispatched to her father in Senegal. It’s been a long time between visits, as she and her sister were sent off with their mother after the divorce while he kept custody of his son Sony. Dad remarried and has twins, but now mom is dead and Sony is accused of killing her. Things don’t go well.

Part Two finds Fanta Descas having left Senegal, where she was a teacher, to follow Rudy to France, where he takes a job at a kitchen contractor, having lost his job as a teacher, and Fanta can’t take a job at all. Things don’t go well.

And Part Three is the journey of Khady Demba. Having lost her husband and livelihood, she is kicked out of the in-laws family and is given the meager tools needed to emigrate, only there are lots of roadblocks, such as the man who takes her under his wing sets her up as a prostitute. Things don’t go well.

There were two overriding questions of the evening. Our first confusion was over the title of the book. How are these women strong? I mentioned that several reviewers noted that French title of the book, Trois Femmes Puissantes, might have better been translated as powerful, but that’s still confusing. That said, it becomes clearer that the author might have meant for the stories’ title to be tongue in cheek.

Knowing that many times author and publisher are not on the same page, was this the publisher’s decision or the author’s? For me, it makes a difference. If it was the publisher’s decision, it was likely a business one; would a novel promoting weak or powerless women be attractive to readers?

A similar discussion erupted over whether the book was in fact a novel. Was it collected novellas, or even three short stories? After all, most story collections have some sort of connecting thread, even if that is the author’s point of view. What is the narrative thread that connects the three paintings of the tryptich? In a way, I was reminded a bit of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, where I got to the middle of the story and was blindsided by the structural changes.

Once again, I wondered whose decision it was to label this a novel. Did NDiaye conceive of this as a whole, or did her publishers? If the former, I’m tempted to locate some interviews in French that I can translate, as I haven’t found something suitable in English. But if it’s the latter, it’s not worth pondering, as once again, it was likely a business decision. But I’m tempted to think it was her idea, as if it weren’t, she probably would have still insisted on each section being named more than part one, two, and three.

One thing the group was able to do was piece together the links. I knew that Khady of the last story was caring for the twins in the first one, but I didn’t quite catch that Khady of the third section was trying to emigrate to Fanta of the second section. A business deal connected parts one and two.

There was some discussion over who the strong woman was of part two. Could it have actually been the white mother and not Fanta? It’s tricky, as Fanta’s story is told completely through the eyes of her husband Rudy. N. thought that this gave the story strength, and liked the way she was captured effectively through mirrors, but A. thought that it didn’t really give us a complete picture of the person.

There was some discussion about some of the images in the novel, particularly the birds. Were they augurs of change, or was this, as Paul Harding noted, just a case where NDiaye liked having strange bird incidents gracing the story? The Italian jacket, below, also used a little bird imagery, but most of the other European designers positioned the book as "African woman in deep thought."

The art director for the hardcover clearly saw the birds as an important image (note the wing above), while the paperback designer seemed to be drawn to the flowers, which also played a part in the stories. However, one of the plants pictured is not wisteria, which was probably the most arresting floral image in the book. Did the designer have a problem with violet? Is it not African looking enough. Oh to get inside people's heads!

I had thought that this was an immigrant narrative of sorts, and C. argued otherwise. N. thought maybe the story could be better thought of as a displacement narrative. It’s true that there are a lot of disruptions in the course of reading the book. Even the experience of reading Three Strong Women is a bit disruptive.

I myself was glad to be reading a French novel that was not quite so “ooh la la.” Not that I don’t enjoy them, but I assumed that the entire country wasn’t indulging in clever twists and winks all the time. It was more of a Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines experience, though Huston tended to write her political opinions a little more strongly into the story. It’s hard to say exactly what NDiaye thinks of Senagal-French relations.

I read that NDiaye struggles with being the voice of multi-ethnic France. She has noted that she was born in France to a French mother and considers herself French. That said, Africa looms over this book and I’ve read that this is the case for much of her other work as well.

If you want to read more, it looks like Rosie Carpe is print on demand short discount nonreturnable (meaning we won’t be stocking it but you can order from us if you pay up front), but All My Friends from Two Lines Press is trade discount and returnable and we in fact have it in stock right now. Of the latter, Publishers Weekly wrote “the five stories in this collection don't follow each other so much as collide like objects in a literary maelstrom, achieving a dizzying terminal velocity.”

I think this is a good way to look at the novellas (sorry, parts of this novel) as pieces colliding against each other. Alas, most of the group present seemed to lean towards the “depressing and bleak” pronouncement, but I think there were three of us present who really liked it, and I think if G and C2 had been present, they would have also had positive things to say.

In the end, I thought back to Ondaatje, and the structure of Divisidero. I began to wonder whether the disjointed structure of the story was meant to give you a dislocation experience that would mirror that of the characters in Three Strong Women. It made me lean towards the author making the call on the book's labeling, but I'd still like to find a few good interviews.

Here's a good review from Jason Farago on the NPR website and here's a link to the Fernanda Eberstadt review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  In the San Francisco Chronicle, Thomas Chatterton Williams touches on our questions of connectedness:The links among these three disparate storylines are tenuous at best, but thematically they more than hold together and create a textured whole that is greater than its parts."

As I mentioned last month, our next selection is John Boyne’s The Absolutist, a novel from indie Other Press, though admittedly, they are now distributed by Random House. He’s best known for his kids’ book that become a film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but I know several booksellers that have just loved this novel, the story of a World War I soldier dispatched to deliver a dead soldier’s letters to his sister. We’re meeting on Monday, November 4, 7 pm.

Then on Monday, December 2, we’re reading Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. I am always torn between selecting a book which I can help bring to readers and an obvious pick that I feel remiss about not reading. It got to the point where I understood I was never going to get a moment to read her novel, and really wanted to. Only two of the attendees had already read it and nobody had yet discussed it in a book club. So it was settled.

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