Marie NDiaye's Ladivine (English translation available April 2016) concerns identity, the horrors the family can cause, metamorphosis, geographical mobility, sudden and unexpected turns in the narrative, recurring names, all wrapped in a general malaise, in fact all the ingredients you'd expect from an NDiaye book.
The first sentence reveals: 'Hardly had she boarded the train when she became Malinka again which was neither a pleasure nor a displeasure because for a long time she had ceased to notice it.' (My translation.) The breathless sentence structure is pretty typical of Marie NDiaye's style, although this is a relatively short sentence: the second one in the book, for instance, tortures itself in this way:
'But she knew because she could then no longer spontaneously reply to the forename Clarisse when, this was rare, a person she knew got on the same train, hailed or greeted her by the forename Clarisse and found her disconcerted, stupid and smiling in confusion, creating a situation of reciprocal embarrassment which Clarisse, a little dazed, didn't know how to get out of by simply saying, and sounding natural, a hello, a how are you.' (My translation again of course.)
So the problem of identity strikes the reader right from the beginning. Clarisse Rivière is married to a successful car salesman and lives in Langon south-east of Bordeaux, although her original forename is Malinka, which is at the root of her problem: only one word ('negresse') specifically refers to her mother's colour, although Malinka/Clarisse (who relatively easily passes as white) sees her past (white father, African-born mother) as a great shame on her. (I had to do a retake on this as Malinka/Clarisse would (if she'd lived and had a reality outside this book) have been about sixty when the book was published, so she'd have been an adolescent in the 1960s: was racism really so prominent in France then?)
Well, it was prominent enough for Malinka/Clarisse to flee from her black mother in Paris to Bordeaux and find a job in a café under the name of Clarisse, although her mother follows her and lives in a flat in a housing block in Sainte-Croix (Bordeaux). And when Clarisse marries she (slightly unbelievably) passes as white, doesn't reveal her true forename to her husband Richard, and secretly visits her mother (Ladivine Sylla) once a month, although her mother doesn't know anything about Malinka's other life.
This then is a story which begins with a big lie, one that will continue through a few generations until Richard discovers it at the end, on finally meeting Ladivine Sylla. And essentially it's the story of three (not strong) women: Ladivine Sylla, Malinka/Clarisse, and the latter's son by Richard, whom she calls Ladivine after the grandmother.
For no reason mentioned at the time, after twenty-five years of marriage Richard leaves for Annecy, leaving Clarisse in the Langon home, where she begins to live with Freddy Moliger, who is a lost soul with a past of parental abuse, the guy who is perhaps the missing part of her life and with whom they can maybe repair themselves. Certainly a kind of mending takes place when Freddy is introduced to Malinka's mother, although he's hurt beyond repair, and so is Malinka when he knifes her to death.
Ladivine the daughter marries the German Marko Berger and they have two kids and live in Germany as Marie NDiaye now does, although Ladivine is cursed too. After Malinka/Clarisse's death the narrator tells her story, shows things only through her eyes, and this vision is strange. Dogs have appeared before certainly, and seem to have a healing purpose, and there may well be a reincarnation of Clarisse in one.
Oh, and then there's Wellington, the strange museum guide in the unnamed Anglophone country in Africa where the Bergers go on holiday, where Marko has an argument with him in their hotel room overnight, where Marko throws him the balcony of their sixth-floor hotel room and he falls to his death on the concrete below. But only Ladivine sees this, and from the breakfast table only she sees the marks of the blood where Wellington was squashed, only Ladivine, from the swimming pool, sees the workers wash the blood away, and only she is seen to argue with Marko about poor Wellington, who resurrects in the spooky Cagnac's home in the holiday country. And no one knows that Ladivine's disappearance is because she's turned into a dog. Does Richard's eventual meeting with the aged Ladivine Sylla end the curse? Woof.
Some critics rate this as NDiaye's greatest achievement, although I'm still not certain, but it's a very powerful book.
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison