Translated from French by Jordan Stump
Reviewed by Kate Gardner
Marie Ndiaye’s latest book could be described as a surrealist family saga, perhaps even magic realist, if I’m allowed to use that term for anything not from Latin America. The touches of the surreal are subtle, and slow-growing. I would put it down to unreliable narration but there isn’t a first person narrator.
What I’m getting at is that this novel’s tone and voice are hard, maybe impossible, to define. It’s about so much more than its storyline, though that too is rich and full. We begin with Clarisse Rivière, a beautiful elegant woman who is so determined to deny that her mother is a black cleaning lady whom she secretly calls “the servant” that she has changed her name from Malinka and never told her husband Richard or daughter Ladivine that her mother is still alive. Clarisse visits her mother once a month, in secret; a painful duty she has imposed on herself. Though she tells herself she has created a perfect life in this way, the secret eats away at her, causing cracks in her marriage and her relationship with her daughter.
(Like Ndiaye and her characters, I am holding a lot back, because the narrative has twists and turns that were a pleasure to discover, unexpected riches that I wouldn’t want to deny other readers by revealing them here.)
The narrative closely follows Clarisse’s thoughts, then later her mother’s and daughter’s, so that contradictions begin to appear. But this also means more attention is paid to long slow thought processes than to the sudden appearance of danger, or tragedy. As strangenesses begin to appear, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this real? Is this a coping mechanism? Is someone going to wake up in a hospital ward at the end?
Her love for her mother was a foul-tasting food, impossible to choke down. That food dissolved into bitter little crumbs in her mouth, then congealed, and this went on and on and had no end, the lump of fetid bread shifting from one cheek to the other, then the soft, stinking fragments that made of her mouth a deep pit of shame.
The overarching theme is shame. Clarisse’s pale skin and straight hair let her “pass” as white, which led her from childhood to feel ashamed of her hard-working single mother, who is black and poor. She feels ashamed of herself for that shame, for her choice to lie to her husband and daughter. That shame is so powerful, so consuming, that the only way she can restrain it is to become increasingly cold and distant. She remains an attentive wife and mother, but she’s just going through the motions.
Did she inherit at least some of that shame from her mother? There are constant parallels between successive generations, inherited traits that seem to doom the family to unhappiness. Without the surreal aspects, the novel would risk being fatalistic, even depressing, but the unusual tone lifts it.
Sometimes she thought they had finally burned through the many layers of silence and shame that did not so much separate as envelop them, and so had arrived at a sort of sincerity, assuming that sincerity can wear the costume of an actor.
It was, she sometimes thought, as if they could see each other perfectly through their masks, all the while knowing they would never lower them.
For the naked truth would not have allowed itself to be looked at.
And this is where Ladivine diverges from any magical realism I’ve read. The characters have so much depth I felt I knew them deeply, even a few pages after meeting them. I longed to reassure them, or talk sense into them, or warn them of going down a wrong path – a sure sign that an author has a gift for characterisation! This meant that I also felt keenly each character’s sorrow and the moments of tragedy were truly, well, tragic.
Marie Ndiaye is a multiple award-winning author, and to add to her accolades this novel was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.
Kate Gardner is a book lover and reviewer based in Bristol, UK, and blogs at www.noseinabook.co.uk
Marie Ndiaye, Ladivine (2013), translated from French by Jordan Stump. (MacLehose Press, 2016). 978-0857053350, 325pp, paperback original.
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