posted by Simon Kemp
One of my very favourite French authors writing today is Marie NDiaye. Her stories of ordinary people and everyday situations heading disturbingly off-kilter are like a gradual slide from reality into anxiety dreams. (If you’re familiar with the work of the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, like the novel or film Never Let Me Go, you have some idea of what I mean).
I was planning on putting NDiaye’s La Sorcière in the book club at some point, since it’s short and accessible, funny and terrifying by turns, and has the most chilling pair of teenage girls in it that you’re ever likely to come across. I will do at some point, but since NDiaye is currently making rather a splash in the English-speaking world with a more recent novel, let’s start instead with her 2009 best-seller, Trois Femmes puissantes (Three Strong Women).
Trois Femmes puissantes won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in the year of publication, and its translation was a runner-up for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s not so much a novel as three interlinked stories. The three women of the title, Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba are connected tangentially but lead very different lives. Norah is a successful French lawyer who visits her estranged father in Senegal to find her brother accused of murdering her stepmother. Fanta’s story is seen through the eyes of her husband, haunted by another Senegalese murder and the disintegration of his marriage. And Khady Demba, glimpsed in the first story as Norah’s father’s maid, sets out in her own story to start a new life in Europe.
The plots of the three stories are less important than their atmosphere, which builds a sense of foreboding that terrible things may occur, and disorients the reader with unexplained events, such as the sudden appearance of Norah’s French family in Senegal, or hints of magic in the uncanny behaviour of birds that may or may not betray the presence of a human soul.
The particular reason for mentioning the novel now is that an adaptation of it is currently being broadcast on UK radio. BBC Radio Four has turned the book into an audio drama in two parts. If you’re based in the UK, Episode One is available to listen to here for the next four weeks, and the second and final episode will be broadcast next Sunday, and available on the iPlayer after that. I’m not entirely sure why they’ve gone for a two-part adaptation, which gives you one-and-a-half strong women per episode. If I were you, I’d reconstitute it into its three stories (each story is about 40 minutes long), and iPlayer them to yourself one by one. The adaptation is very faithful (unlike certain current BBC adaptations of great French literature we could mention…) and will give you an idea of what makes NDiaye such a major figure in contemporary French writing. It may even inspire you to seek out more of her work.