We’re staying in France for today’s Man Booker International Prize post, but where our last stop saw us spend some time in the cold north, this time we’re heading further south, where the weather is slightly better. The emotions, however, are just as fraught, and when tragedy strikes, as was the case further north, we are witness to a sorry family affair…
Ladivine by Marie NDiaye –
Review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press, translated by Jordan Stump
What’s it all about?
Clarisse Rivière seems to have a wonderful life. Living in a nice house with her husband Richard and her daughter Ladivine, she enjoys her work as a waitress. However, there’s a shadow hanging over her happiness, one linked to the secretive monthly trips she takes to Bordeaux. Clarisse is actually called Malinka, and every month she visits her mother Ladivine, an elderly woman Clarisse is slightly ashamed of.
Pretending the past doesn’t exist is rarely a recipe for success, however, and Clarisse’s life eventually comes to mirror that of her mother, with Richard abandoning her and the younger Ladivine moving to Berlin, only rarely returning to visit her mother. Left all alone, Clarisse is rather vulnerable, and when she enters into a relationship with the insalubrious Freddy Moliger, there’s a palpable sense of disaster waiting to happen. If only the three generations of women could reach out, perhaps the worst might be avoided, but time is running out – it might already be too late…
NDiaye’s is probably best known in English, on the European side of the Atlantic, at least, for her previous novel Three Strong Women, and Ladivine is essentially exactly that, a family drama told by three generations of women struggling with their fate. As in the earlier work, readers may question the use of the word ‘strong’ here, but each of the women displays strength in her own way, with the male characters largely absent, weak or avoiding responsibility. The tragedy of the book, though, is that the younger women, despite having their mother’s example fresh in their mind, are fated to repeat the mistakes of the older generation. It’s almost as if there’s something in their blood which blinds them to the probable consequences of their actions.
If there is a central character, it’s probably Clarisse, the middle of the three main women. Growing up without a father, she comes to despise her mother, who is simply killing time, waiting for him to return. While it’s never explicitly stated, the reader suspects that her problems may merely be skin deep:
From her earliest childhood, Clarisse Rivière would realise, she had done nothing but spurn her mother, and her mother had pretended not to notice, and perhaps had not noticed, in a way, having found another explanation for her daughter’s coldness than the simple scandal of her own appearance, her own face.
Because that was a truth Malinka’s mother would never be able to bear.
p.19 (MacLehose Press, 2016)
Clarisse has inherited lighter skin from her absent father, and this helps her to fool herself into believing she doesn’t really belong to the life of poverty she finds herself in, fantasising that it’s all very different, with Ladivine cast not as a mother, but as her servant:
She herself so suffered from the pain she inflicted on the servant, who had done nothing to merit this punishment, that a weight settled into her chest and never went away, an alloy of grief and guilt whose volume and mass she felt every minute of the day, crushing her, smothering her.
But once her decision was made there was no going back. (p.40)
After one false start, Clarisse manages to leave Ladivine (and Malinka…) behind, with only the monthly visits to remind her of the past.
While Clarisse’s actions appear cruel, it could be argued that Ladivine brings this all upon herself. A saintly figure, trodden upon, taking everything life can throw at her, she is unable to express the love she feels for Malinka and never reveals the secrets of her relationship with the girl’s father. After some initial resistance, she passively accepts Clarisse’s unspoken demands, asking no questions about her daughter’s new life and marking time between the monthly visits.
As the book progresses, and we learn more about the adult Ladivine (the grand-daughter), the parallels between the three women become ever clearer. After their break-up, Richard muses over Clarisse:
Why had she set out to make herself impossible to love, transformed herself into a figure without qualities, the image of a fleshless, evanescent, unbearable perfection? (p.293)
The real tragedy here is the way history repeats itself, all three women wanting only to love, but ending up by shutting the world out. This feigned detachment drives those close to them away, the women’s fear of saying the wrong thing leading others to see them as uncaring and cruel. NDiaye allows us to see beneath the surface, the almost schizophrenic contrast between the emotions swirling around inside and the blank face they show to the world.
Clarisse, in particular, is a complex character, her obvious feelings of love overpowered by shame, and the issue of her roots is one which is always bubbling along beneath the surface. This is explored in the next generation when her daughter takes a family holiday, presumably somewhere in Africa, only to be overwhelmed by a sense of belonging (even though, never having met her grandmother, she is unaware of this side of her background). It’s very tempting here to draw parallels with the writer’s own life: NDiaye’s father also left when she was very young, and she too, like the younger Ladivine, moved to Berlin later in life.
Yet that would be oversimplifying what is a far more complex story. In truth, much of Ladivine is obscure, with motives veiled, places vaguely defined and a slightly dreamlike air to the whole story, particularly during the sections set overseas. There’s a strange dog which returns to each of the woman in turn, a sort of spiritual guardian; a mysterious doppelgänger for the younger Ladivine, which means she is treated like a local while in a foreign land; and also a forest in which Ladivine seeks to lose herself. I know I say this a lot in my reviews, but there really is something very Murakamiesque about this one in places 😉
Ladivine is an excellent novel, albeit one which demands patience from the reader as it circles around, swapping viewpoints between the main three characters. While it can be languid at times, it’s also punctuated by some surprising violence, the contrast between the two adding to the strength of the story. Ndiaye, once again, has come up with an excellently constructed novel – and a timely warning to anyone unable to express themselves to their loved ones…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Surprisingly, after my largely positive comments above, the answer is only a maybe, but a highly subjective maybe. Let me explain…
Having already tried Self-Portrait in Green and Three Strong Women (twice, a couple of years apart), this was my fourth experience of reading Ndiaye’s work, and for the most part it went just as it had every other time. I knew that this was an excellent book by a talented writer, but it never quite clicked for me. I enjoyed it in patches, yet there would always come a time when that enjoyment lessened. The question is why…
One theory I’ve come up with has to do with the language and the way NDiaye structures her paragraphs, or perhaps better put, her lack of paragraphs. Exhibit A:
He knew what he was waiting for, that apparition on Clarisse’s face, and he silently berated himself for his credulity and duplicity.
Because the face that she offered him, suspecting none of this, was nakedly trusting.
But he could not help himself, and he searched for those features for some revelation; at long last, he desperately hoped, he would know who Clarisse Rivière had been. (p.292)
I suspect that a large part of my discomfort with Ndiaye’s writing is linked to the constant use of this technique, a series of short sentences (sometimes simply clauses) designed to hammer home a point, to stop the reader in their tracks. I’m sure it’s intentional (and I have no doubt that Jordan Stump has brought this across faithfully from the French), but for me personally it can becoming a little tiring. One of the functions of this choice of style is to focus on the thoughts of the character in questions, and again this psychological focus tends to break up the story. The pace can be a little slow in places, too slow for me…
All purely subjective (and probably a little too analytical), but for these reasons, Ladivine, which really should be clearly in my top six, is instead one of a few books on the fringes – which isn’t that bad, is it?
Will it make the shortlist?
Again, maybe, but for different reasons. As I mentioned in my post on Mend the Living, I have my doubts as to whether there’s room for both French women on the shortlist. I could, however, be wrong 😉
As much as I’ve enjoyed our stay in France, it’s time to move on, heading further south (and a long way East) to the very edge of Europe. Let’s stand on the shores of the Bosphorus and gaze across to Asia as we attempt to clear our minds for the final stages of our journey. A drink, you say? Well, I might just be able to help you out there. Boo-zaa…