Marie Ndiaye - Three Strong Women

Three Strong Women - Marie NDiaye

If I were the sort of person who writes one-word reviews, I’d say: “intriguing”. Because this book is definitely intriguing. Don’t be put off by the long sentences, occasional editorial glitches and some repetitions – in the end “Three Strong Women” is a rewarding book. Marie Ndiaye might prefer commas to periods but she can write. And it’s still an improvement from her debut novel, which, I hear, was 200 page long and contained only ONE sentence, so obviously Ndiaye is overcoming some innate aversion to periods and we should support her.

I was surprised to learn ‘Three Strong Women’ is not a novel but a set of three novellas, so just as I was getting into the story of Norah, a slightly neurotic control freak with serious daddy’s issues I was pulled out of it, transported from Senegal back to France to join Rudy on a very long day during which he was going to reminisce over what a failure he was. The second novella is the longest and is brought to a satisfying end before the reader has to embark on yet another journey, again in Senegal, where Khady fights to maintain her identity because it is the last thing she still has in her miserable life.

While this book is by no means of the magical realism kind, there are certain shifts in perception, certain unreliability of memories and that peculiar self-disassociation that the characters suffer from, that made put it on my ‘dreamy books’ shelf. There is also a very authentic exploration of a bully’s psyche and insecurities in the second novella. 

You can have a lot of fun setting these three novellas against each other and looking for common themes and tropes. For example, the characters in the first and second novella suffer from weird, possibly psychosomatic, afflictions in their nether regions. In the second and third novella, there are ‘bad omen’ birds. In the first and second novella we are in (a loosely defined) First World, while the third one takes place in a decisively Third World reality. The first and the last one are told from a female point of view with male characters only as shadowy figures - it’s the other way round in the second novella. You could go on like that for ages, try it. I don’t know why my brain needs to catalogue things like that, but it does that whether I want it or not.

As this book has very strong links with Senegal, I decided to cook something Senegalese for dinner. The most traditional, national dish seems to be Thiéboudienne – Senegalese Fish and Rice. I have found a dozen of recipes on the internet and each one of them was different, so in the end I improvised using all of them. My three most important sources of inspiration were these:, and It’s a rather time consuming dish, because each component must be cooked separately but in the same sauce. The result is delicious, though.

Due to the lack of any interesting fish, I used Vietnamese river cobbler (also known as panga or catfish) and without getting into a long debate here, you’re not going to die from eating it, despite whatever nonsense you might’ve read on the internets. The truth is that sort of nonsense propaganda appeared only (very interestingly) in the countries which have a local, more expensive equivalent of panga (i.e. cod). It’s been one of the most popular fish in Poland since mid-90’s and no decrease in life expectancy has been observed (but then we don’t have a strong cod lobby, what we do have is second biggest Vietnamese community in Europe, weirdly). The only thing you should be concerned about panga is the food miles.