Trois femmes puissantes involves three apparently loosely related stories concerning three women: the first section (about one hundred pages) concerns Norah, the third (about ninety pages) concerns Khady Demba, and the largest (central) section (about 160 pages) has Fanta as a kind of permanent backcloth to her husband Rudy's thoughts. All three stories are told by a third person narrator who has omniscient access to Norah's, Rudy's and Khady's thoughts. But the thoughts aren't necessarily always reliable.
Norah's story takes place in Senegal, where her father whom she has not seen for many years has summoned her from France. Their relationship has never been warm, and he has always been arrogant and distant towards Norah (now a lawyer in France), although she is shocked by the fact that this once-prosperous man is now relatively poor, and even more shocked to learn that her brother Sony is in prison awaiting trial accused of strangling his step-mother, by whom Sony has twins. But Sony informs Norah that his father, who wants Norah to defend Sony, is the real murderer, who holds his dead wife (as opposed to Sony) as the real guilty party: OK, it's the age-old double standard egged on by blood relationship.
Rudy Descas's story is related to Fanta's. Following the murder of his father's associate by his father Abel, the French Rudy is for very indirectly related reasons dismissed from his prestigious lycée in Dakar. He takes his teacher wife the Senegalese Fanta and their child Djibril back to France, although Fanta's teaching qualifications aren't recognised there and Rudy is reduced to selling kitchens for his boss Manille, who may or may not have had a sexual relationship with Fanta. But the humiliated, suspicious, jealous and in many ways guilt-riven Rudy is frightened Fanta will take his son from him and his impotent envy even leads him to consider killing the successful sculptor Gauquelan.
Finally there is Khady Demba's story. Having lost her husband, Khady goes to live with her in-laws, although her presence is resented by her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, largely because she is not a direct relative but also because she has been unable to produce a child. Her mother-in-law grudgingly gives her a pittance and tells her not to come back. This story is the most harrowing of the three, involving Khady becoming destitute, injuring her leg on a nail when escaping from a boat, being forced into a horrific life of prostitution, robbed by Lamine whom she believed to be her only friend, and eventually falling to her death in an attempt to flee to Europe.
The obvious links between the three stories are that Norah's father made his fortune through the holiday village Dara Salam, which Abel has built and in which the young Rudy and his parents lived for some time; and Khady is Norah's father's servant, and a cousin of Fanta's sent by her in-laws on the extremely hazardous journey to Fanta's home in France, where they believe that Fanta is rich and will send them money.
Why NDiaye is difficult to understand is because she makes no compromises, she makes the reader work, and this is surely part of her great strength as one of the (if not the) most important living writers in French. Khady's story is straightforward, told in consecutive (and much more physical and graphic) terms than the other stories: in Norah and Rudy/Fanta's stories, we are slowly – often drip by drip – fed stories out of sequence, we are left to piece together the information to form an idea of a picture.
This is apparently NDiaye at her most 'realist' so far, largely abandoning the 'fantastic' of previous books, although there's still a deal of what seems to be symbolism here, and that largely comes from the birds mentioned, and NDiaye is a Hitchcock enthusiast. Norah's father regularly perches bird-like in the flamboyant tree; the dying Khady believes she sees herself reincarnated as a grey bird; but most prominent of all – sent by Fanta, or is that part of an over-active imagination/possible psychosis? – a buzzard seeks to attack Rudy. I'm sure Marie NDiaye didn't intend (even the same) birds to represent one particular thing, but that only makes reading her all the more interesting. There's a great deal to chew on here, and I shall in future be re-reading this book and certainly more of hers, and no doubt adding to and altering this post, thinking what a fool I've been to miss the obvious.
At one point, the narrator says of Rudy: 'soudain il discerna sans erreur possible ce que ses yeux s'étaient contentés d'effleurer tout à l'heure sans l'interpréter', or 'suddenly he saw beyond any possible error what his eyes had previously been content to glaze over without interpreting'. (My translation.) Yes, I think that neatly sums up what a careful read of Marie NDiaye can bring out.
ADDENDUM: Having now read most of NDiaye's work, I have to say that this book, although in many ways typical of the writer, is very far from her best work. If an unknowing person read this 'novel' first, I imagine they might well be put off reading anything else by NDiaye. Why she won the Goncourt for this rather mystifies me: it's as if the Goncourt jury suddenly realised that they'd made a mistake in not awarding the prize to NDiaye's earlier Rosie Carpe, so chose this instead. It's probably more complicated than that though, and more due to political factors (in the broadest sense of the term).
Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes
Marie NDiaye: Quant au riche avenir
Marie NDiaye: Tous mes amis