Saturday, February 16, 2013

And in conclusion... Three Strong Women

So I finally finished Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye and I've even had some time to absorb it and think about it a bit. It's an interesting book, but I find myself struggling to actually recommend it to readers. As seen through the rear-view mirror, Three Strong Women works much better than it did while I was actually reading it. Fit together, the three stories that make up this book suddenly seem clearer and more sharply tuned. But this does not detract from the book's flaws.

I mentioned in my last post that I was developing a theory about the title: Three Strong Women. Now, after having read all three stories I want to discuss it a bit more in depth because I think this is the strongest argument both in favor of reading the book, and possibly against it as well. This post will contain spoilers.

Okay. We have three women: Norah, Fanta and Khady. Norah and Khady give us their stories firsthand; Fanta's story is seen through the eyes of her husband. The three women face various struggles throughout their stories, mostly revolving around men in their lives. These are not romantic issues, though the dynamics of romantic love do come into play in each of the stories. These three women are supposed to be our "strong women". But truthfully, not one of the three is a strong woman by my definition, and this is in fact what makes the novel an interesting one.

Norah is technically the closest - she is independent, supports her daughter, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's daughter, and is a successful lawyer despite whatever issues she may have had as a child. Yet she lives under her father's shadow, jumps when he says jump and in essence succumbs to his strength throughout her story.

Fanta is similarly submissive, but what are her character traits? We know she has had an affair (which her husband Rudy discovered), but stayed with her husband, despite all observations indicating her unhappiness with him and their general living situation. Is her strength found in the fact that she stays with a troubled husband, or is it found in the fact that she even followed him to France in the first place? Fanta is supposed to be a strong woman, but no textual evidence supports it. Seen through her husband's eyes, she is almost deliberately flattened.

And then Khady. Khady starts her story out completely submissive - indeed, admitting to having closed herself off. She then makes one pivotal decision, which she proudly views as her first shot at independence. But this strength and her independence lead her into a complex mess of issues that culminate in a rather heartbreaking ending. So what's the lesson here?

I've seen a lot of readers and reviewers call Three Strong Women conservative, and there's something about that word. When our "strong women" are not truly strong at all, it can seem as though Three Strong Women is actually conservative, restrained and old-fashioned. But I don't think that's the case. Ndiaye treats her characters with care, but there's a sense of irony behind everything she writes. Once I finished the book, the suspicion I'd had that Ndiaye was ironically referring to these women as "strong" intensified. I'm not one-hundred percent convinced, but... that's what it feels like.

Here's the thing: I will recommend Three Strong Women to certain readers. It's an interesting, thought-provoking book and even though Ndiaye's writing will probably not appeal to all readers, it didn't bother me too much. The very fact that I am still uncertain as to Ndiaye's true intentions leave me intrigued; I suspect these certain readers will be equally curious.

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