Readers of translated fiction would probably have come across Marie NDiaye through her 2009 Prix Goncourt winning work “Three Strong Women, the work also making the shortlist of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2014 (the Award won by Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling – translated by Anne McLean). The English translation of her latest work Ladivine, just being released in the United Kingdom and is scheduled for release in the United States next week.
If you were to read this book looking for a linear narrative, or a simple plot, you would be disappointed, whilst basically we can follow the lives of three women, Ladivine, Clarisse (or Malinka) and Ladvine, the work is a lot more complex than what appears on the surface.
In the opening pages we learn about Clarisse Rivière, who travels incognito to Bordeaux on the first Tuesday of each month to visit her mother Ladivine, but Clarisse isn’t actually Clarisse, she’s Malinka, and she’s ashamed of her past;
Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never gone and never would go – though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet – everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder as at the wrist.
And the face that her mother had therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you did not want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?
Whilst not explicit, Ladivine is dark skinned and Clarisse light skinned, Malika, becoming Clarisse and attempting to escape her heritage, is this a story of displacement, but one where our protagonist wants to be displaced?
A novel that is rich with emotion, here’s a few words taken from a single page – intelligence, ingenuity, strategy, stubborn, immovable, failure, resolute, evasive, fear, compassion. A roller-coaster of family manipulation, personal highs and lows and confused self-awareness.
As a reader you move through extremely touching sections, where you feel the daughter’s rejection of her mother, a woman who called her only child “my princess”, a single mother who worked as a servant and cleaner to raise her daughter, and then to be rejected!
A theme that runs throughout is rejection, whether it is of your own family, of your roots, of your culture, of your partner, and this theme isn’t only restricted to Clarisse and her rejection of her mother, she is also hiding behind a façade;
How she loved her face in the morning, powdered, serious and inanimate!
That was how Clarisse was meant to be in the eyes in the world, a wonderful girl whose good points were all you ever saw, because there were no bad ones. And how that Clarisse was loved!
Here I’ve really only touched on the opening sections, quite soon thereafter, her daughter has moved out, her husband has left and she cannot share the pain with her mother, as she keeps her mother a secret from her family, she keeps her family, and even her daughter, a secret from her mother. She cannot share her pain, and conversely she could not share the joy of having a daughter.
Her daughter Ladivine, who telephoned often, and her co-workers at the restaurant, and Richard Rivière himself, who dutifully called once a month and wired her money she never spent, they were all doing their best, discreetly, affectionately, sometimes with openly expressed concern, to rescue her from humiliation.
But she had never felt any such thing. Nor was she humiliated that people thought her humiliated, only vaguely surprised.
The novel doesn’t simply cover the mother Ladivine and the daughter Malika/Clarisse, it moves to the story of the daughter/grand-daughter Ladivine, and her relationship with her father and her husband and children. Although the main character women in this novel (the two Ladivine’s and Clarisse) are “storng women” I feel their nonchalant behaviour, accepting manner, working continually to simply fit in makes this novel “Three Benevolent Women” not “Three Strong Women”. The opening quote I used is one that does crop up a few times and it does define these women, they simply say nothing.
Ladivine had met him after two aimless years at the University of Bordeaux, which, on a whim and a friend of a friend’s vague promise of lodging, she’d left for Berlin, with no great enthusiasm, under the illusion that time and life would go by more quickly if she moved on, stupidly, because she had no plans, no hopes, because at twenty-one she felt tired and worn, and she saw Marko at the watch counter of the Hermannplatz Karstadt, where he’d recently found work, and realised that a young man like him, with his long hair, his big glasses, his delicate, kindly, clam, endlessly patient face would never feel the need to hurt anyone at all, that there was a kind of glory about him that he didn’t work at and didn’t believe in, that that word would have made him laugh, as he was a practical man, and this serene scepticism was an element of his grace, since he had no knowledge of that grace, since he had no access to it.
As per usual I would rather not give too much of the plot away here, so I am quite restricted in the amount of information I can share here, doing my best to stay within the boundaries of the book’s blurb and inner sleeve description. Although I will say I was wondering how the novel was going to sustain the story of Ladivine and Malika/Clarisse for 300+ pages when it was moving quite rapidly in the first 100!!!
This is a novel that has a blend of genres, a melting pot of styles, making it a difficult work to simply categorise, that is not a bad thing, fresh voices and young writers pushing the literary boundaries are more than welcome on my shelves. In fact I’ll review another recent release by a female writer in translation in the next couple of days that very much so pushes the boundaries.
A worthy inclusion on the Man Booker Prize Longlist, in my top few? Probably not, but it is still alive and kicking for the Shadow Jury’s main prize so we will know more in the coming weeks.