This isn't really a novel about three strong women because, out of the three protagonists, one seems delusional, one a victim of circumstance, and the other a deranged man. The novel's tripartite structure, which appears to be three short stories with a tenuous link, charts their personal hell. The first is Norah, a mixed-race French-Senegalese woman reluctantly returning to visit her despised elderly father in Senegal.
Marie NDiaye soon establishes herself as a writer who dissects her characters with impressive forensic detail, the subtlest speech inflection or gesture put under the microscope. Norah's problems lie not only with her father but also with her husband, brother – and her own sanity. As the story unravels, so does her mind.
Next comes Rudy, a paranoid, enraged, jealous, dangerously irrational Frenchman married to a Senegalese woman, Fanta, who has had enough of him. This is his story, not hers, as we witness his crazy behaviour. The last story is Khady's, a young Senegalese widow so hard done by you want to smuggle her into Britain and book her into an extended stay at Champneys. Her tale of cruelty, extreme hardship, exploitation and despair treads the more predictable ground of recent fiction about Africa.
The novel is in the fashionable style of the discontinuous narrative, the plot, as such, embedded in a scramble of thoughts, feelings, scenes, memories and time-shifts, sometimes resembling stream-of-consciousness and eschewing the closure of more traditional endings. But if you're prepared to abandon the strictures of convention, it's a great read. While the "non-ending-endings" strategy might risk being dissatisfying, it forces a deeper intellectual engagement. In the absence of answers, we reflect on what we've read, and because we don't know what happens to the characters, they linger in the mind – especially Rudy, whose hectic interiority is so compelling.
The novel explores the mutability and unreliability of memory and truth. All the protagonists have damaged histories. Norah blames her father for ruining the lives of his children, but do we trust her version of reality? Rudy's state of mind seems to stem from a childhood trauma, but he is too steeped in self-pity to elicit sympathy. Khady is the victim of the politics of gender and poverty. Her one act of resistance fails.
The first few pages of the translation by John Fletcher read awkwardly but, after that, the prose flies. At times the language has an hypnotic emotional intensity and, although it's sometimes overwritten, verbosity becomes part of its charm. NDiaye was the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt in 2009: the French equivalent of the Man Booker. I can see why. The novel has a passion, daring and individuality that makes it stand out.
Bernardine Evaristo's 'Blonde Roots' is published by Penguin