Three Strong Women by Marie N'Diaye and John Fletcher (translator)

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Three Strong Women by Marie N'Diaye and John Fletcher (translator)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Not for those looking for laughs, this is an award winning novel of such power that the compulsion to read it builds as the narrative progresses. Three separate stories connected by two diverse countries and clever twists that leave you breathless.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2012
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-0857050564

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As it says on the tin, this powerful novel revolves around three women, connected by their strength and two countries and diverse cultures (France and Africa) but also other, more subtle factors. (More of that later.) First there's lawyer, Norah, returning to Africa at the behest of her estranged father. There has never been love lost between them, mainly because her father prefers to ignore his female offspring; therefore his reason for the summons is a mystery, until... The second story is that of African teacher, Fanta, forced by an event beyond her control to leave Africa and settle in France with her husband Rudy. Then the final section belongs to Khady, widowed after three years of marriage and sent to France by her Cinderella-esque mother-in-law. As Khady's status as a childless widow is financially unattractive, it has been deemed that she would be of more use sending money back from Europe... once she has entered France as an illegal immigrant.

Marie N'Diaye is a French writer who has an award-laden mantelpiece. Her previous novel Rosie Carpe won the Prix Femina and then Three Strong Women itself won the ultimate French award, the Prix Goncourt. (Marie was also the first black French woman to win.) Deciding that she couldn't live in a France presided over by Sarkozy, the author moved to Germany where the Berlin literary Prize was added to her achievements; having read Three Strong Women I'm really not surprised.

The people are written in the same way that an artist paints – with texture, layers and depth. Norah's father, for instance, doesn't give an initial impression of being a loving parent, but then, like an onion, as each layer of cruelty is peeled away an even darker one is revealed beneath. Each peeled layer also comes with a twist that alienates the reader from him as a person, whilst making that reader more reluctant to put the book down. Gathering in your readership whilst unveiling almost unpalatable truths is quite a trick. This isn't a one-off though. The same trick works in a different way in Fanta's story.

Whilst our acquaintance with Norah came from her own viewpoint, Fanta is revealed through the thoughts and viewpoint of her husband, Rudy. I so want to discuss this in more detail, but don't want to give too much away. Let's say he's a man with definite issues. For reasons in his past that gradually become apparent, Rudy's world is shaped totally by his own ideas and perceptions. This turns Rudy's narrative into an enthralling game. Rudy, through a fascinating internal dialogue, tells us how things are and we attempt to discern real truth from Rudy truth. Watching the machinations of Rudy's mind is like watching a faltering car engine with the bonnet up. It may not function as it should but it's still captivating to see in such detail.

Khady's section is the shortest and, interestingly enough, the only one to reach resolution. During her flight (as in fleeing) to a new life she is thrilled at the prospect of becoming her own person. Any relationship with anyone during her escape, when she feels she's abdicating power, she justifies as a temporary state that's just a means to an end. Her whole focus shifts from the moment she's living in to the mirage-like future of freedom that she feels she's progressing towards.

Actually 'power' is a very interesting word in the context of this novel. When translated from the original French, the title could also mean 'Three Powerful Women' and, to me, this would have been a better title, adding a sense of irony. Indeed all three are strong in their own way and in their own individual circumstances, but power is a recurring theme. All three have their power taken away from them via the actions or choices of others (of both genders, though men don't come out of this book particularly well). Also their migration from Africa to France or vice versa comes from the coercion/duress/choice of third parties. In Norah and Fanta's cases they're bright, successful, career women but in the end others have the tools (be it love of siblings, children or money) to manipulate their futures. This may not be an optimistic tale, but, unfortunately, very realistic and, miraculously, absorbing in such a way that you feel privileged to have spent time in these three women's company.

I would like to thank the publisher for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.

If you'd like to read more about the life and trials of an immigrant, then we recommend Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones, The Road Home by Rose Tremain and Hinterland by Caroline Brothers, each treating the subject from a different angle.

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Buy Three Strong Women by Marie N'Diaye and John Fletcher (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Three Strong Women by Marie N'Diaye and John Fletcher (translator) at


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