#30Authors is an event started by The Book Wheel that connects readers, bloggers, and authors. In it, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community. It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit www.thebookwheelblog.com/30authors or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.
I love to read literature in translation, particularly from France, but over the past several years I’ve been remiss in keeping up with the latest books. Ladivine, the new novel by French author Marie NDiaye, makes me realize what I’ve been missing.
The best way to read Ladivine is to know very little about it in advance, which makes reviewing it tricky. Part of the pleasure of the novel comes in the unexpected and sometimes shocking ways it unfolds. Without giving too much away, the novel focuses on three generations of women: Ladivine, an immigrant to France from an unnamed, presumably African country; Ladivine’s daughter Malinka, who changes her name to Clarisse; and Clarisse’s daughter, also named Ladivine. The story begins with Clarisse, who grows up embarrassed by her mother, a kind-hearted woman who works as a maid. The novel is in part a meditation on race and colonialism, but these issues are never addressed explicitly. We learn that Clarisse’s mother is black, that her unknown father is probably white, and that Clarisse is able to pass as white, but the reader is left to figure out all this on her own.
Clarisse derisively refers to her mother as “the servant,” and she does her best to escape her mother and reinvent herself with a new identity. She marries and has a daughter; both her husband and child think she was orphaned when she was young. Clarisse secretly visits her mother once a month and helps financially support her, treating her in an outwardly cold and cruel way, but inside feeling tortured over her feelings for the sad, abandoned woman who raised her.
No one in Clarisse’s new life really knows who she is, and when she finally decides to reveal her true self, the consequences change the lives of everyone around her. In the most compelling part of the book, we meet Clarisse’s daughter, now an adult, who doesn’t even know she has a grandmother for whom she is named. While on vacation in an unnamed, tropical country — presumably the one from which her grandmother came — she finds herself in bizarre, dream-like, sometimes violent circumstances that she doesn’t understand, which threaten to consume her.
This novel is strange, and it will likely be a struggle for anyone who can’t embrace its dark, beautiful, mesmerizing strangeness. It incorporates elements of magical realism, and can be disorienting, which is part of its power. The first part of the novel is written in a cold, abstract style, which mirrors Clarisse’s personality, but one of my favorite things about this book is the way it shifts to different characters’ points of view and immerses the reader in each of their worlds. The novel starts off as one kind of book, and ends up as something far different.
Ladivine is my introduction to NDiaye’s work, and I’ll certainly be reading through her backlist now, beginning with her previous novel, Three Strong Women, which won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize.
Sarai Walker is author of the novel Dietland. Her articles have appeared in national publications, including the New York Times. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College and her PhD in English from the University of London. She is currently a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Memphis.