Three abrasively unpleasant stories snagged on overlapping locations, like Khady’s torn leg and torn ear, snagged and then torn loose by impersonal brutality, a world that wounds.
NDiaye’s style reminded me of other extremely ‘interior’ texts, in particular The Hour of the Star. The prose is sophisticated, almost deliberately awkward and consciously repetitive. The grim subject matter demoralised me to the point of wanting to abandon reading, and the magical elements only enhanced the mood of miserable, grief-stricken, terrifying unheimlich. I did not enjoy reading.
For example, Ndiaye (for unlike in The Hour of the Star our narrator’s voice is not explicitly mediated) would flatly announce that a character felt some incongruous emotion… It is true that people feel incongruous emotions and perhaps the author wants to make me work harder to relate to people on or beyond the edge of sanity, but I found myself lacking in the requisite patience or compassion to feel other than baffled when someone found hostility reassuring or was disgusted by the unusually healthy and vivacious appearance of a beloved mother.
NDiaye’s characters do not feel what I would feel and so I constantly have to be told what they are feeling; it cannot be implied; no gaps can be left for me here; the lacunae are pushed to the margins of the interlocking narratives, where I would fill them if it weren’t for the gross inconsistencies between them, the lurking spectres of false memory, fogging the thoughts of our three severely unreliable narrators. I was so grumpy while reading that the conflicting accounts felt to me like authorial spite!
The low point for me is Fanta’s section, which is narrated by her mentally ill, arrogant and angry white husband. Why o why am I stuck in this poisoned psyche? I begged the author to reveal to me, but I was left to myself, to find some answer. Each narrative mercilessly punishes a ‘strong’ black woman for daring to exist unbowed; that’s why I found it so uncongenial and saddening. Why, Marie, why? I pleaded. She could have answered ‘Is it my fault I know a truth that is ugly? What right have you to hide from it?’ and yeah, I have no comeback.
But the themes and their bridges! Rudy’s racist mother’s obsession with little blond boys and Fanta and Rudy’s son, whose very name mocks her ironic blindness, which seems counterpointed to me by Khady’s obsessive desire for motherhood. But Djibril, an external character who seems particularly sane and likeable, is bound by that hinted-at angelic status to Norah’s glowing, menacing father, another maligned black male. Where does a bird become an angel or vice versa? Surely the crow-hustler-guide who leads cast-out Khady for a while is not from heaven? I have not understood well; the meanings of signs have escaped me.
But it is impossible to miss the sign of Khady’s strength, her implacable, instinctive self-love and self-respect, the blazing light that closes the book in its fearful tumult and anguish and outrage. It is through Khady that the ‘strength’ of Norah (who is busy) and Fanta (who does not speak for herself) is clarified and tempered:
She had even happened on occasion to feel proud of being Khady because – she had often thought with some amazement – children whose lives seemed happy, who ever day got generous helpings of chicken and fish and wore clothes to school that were not stained or torn, such children were no more human than Khady Demba who only managed to get a minuscule helping of the good things in life
Just as Lispector from under the weight of her worldly narrator lovingly reveals her meagre Macabea human and angel, I hear Ndiaye speak to all Khadys, Norahs and Fantas: ‘No matter what humiliation, deprivation and violence is piled on you, you are essence as well as existence, you are yourself, you are crucial and irreplacable to the whole universe.’ And to the rest I hear her spit ‘Do better’.