Next week the winner of the Man Booker International Prize will be announced. I’ve read a few from the longlist, and my favorite, Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine, sadly didn’t make it to the shortlist and thus is no longer a potential winner! I hope the book doesn’t need that publicity, though, to make it onto reading lists. NDiaye is an author to watch, and this is the best of hers I’ve yet read (I suffer from a blind spot where Three Strong Women and Rosie Carpe are concerned . . . oh, and with all of her works that have yet to be translated!)
NDiaye’s books have been powerful and illuminating for me, even though they’ve retained so much mystery. The lines between characters always feel blurry to the point I often don’t quite know who’s on the page anymore. This works particularly well in the more straight-forward Ladivine.
As the book begins, we meet a woman named Clarisse Rivière, but from the first sentence her identity is in flux:
She was Malinka again the moment she got on the train, and she found it neither a pleasure nor a burden, having long since stopped noticing.
When I first read this, I smiled and settled back in my chair, excited to again be in such capable hands. The next paragraph keeps the mystery alive, as we learn this is a woman who has somehow split her identity:
But it happened, she could tell, for no more could she answer without a second thought to “Clarisse” when, rarely, someone she knew took that same train and called to or greeted her as “Clarisse,” only to see her stare back in puzzled surprise, a hesitant smile on her lips, creating a mutual discomfort that the slightly flustered Clarisse never thought to dispel by simply echoing that “Hello,” that “How are you,” as offhandedly as she could.
Clarisse is on the train to Bordeaux, to visit her mother, as she does once every month, and we soon find out that her mother knows her as Malinka. Of course, it was her mother who named her Malinka, and her mother has no idea of any other name. Clarisse has, but for these monthly visits, completely repudiated her past and, with it, her mother. When she leaves Bordeaux, she sheds the skin of Malinka and finds no difficulty answering to Clarisse.
The book continues for some time to tell us about Clarisse: about her mother, a black seamstress with no money, whom Clarisse refers to (and, thus, keeps distant) as “the servant”; about her husband, who eventually leaves her, in part because Clarisse “couldn’t hold back the numbness gradually overtaking her household, the cold torpor exuded in spite of her by her artificial, oblique self”; and about her daughter, whom she has named Ladivine, Ladivine being the name of her repudiated mother in Bordeaux. The mother Ladivine knows nothing about her granddaughter, though she suspects, because she has watched her daughter closely, that those months when Malinka did not visit were because she was pregnant. Her mother loves her enough, perhaps even sympathizes with her motives, that she doesn’t rock the boat by asking questions. Which is not to suggest that NDiaye is suggesting that we feel any of the same sympathy.
Throughout this section — it’s just the first — NDiaye manages a beautiful ambivalence, just as Clarisse manages her tragic ambivalence. Clarisse repudiates her past but she visits her mother every month, thereby retaining this past. We come to understand that she loves her mother; she’s just ashamed of “the servant.” Clarisse’s hope to become the person she envisions in her mind is felt on each page, though we also feel the melancholy of a half soul. Such nuance imbues the books with its mysterious power, though the story, as it explores the gulfs between people, gulfs they create while apparently seeking something, is fascinating as well.
This first section comes to a conclusion with surprising violence, and NDiaye destabilizes the entire narrative as our attention is directed primarily at Clarisse’s daughter Ladivine who begins to sense, without fully understanding, her mother’s past. And we descend into a horrific labyrinth.
Making the labyrinth a psychological nightmare are all of the doubling and transformations throughout: obviously we have the two women named Ladivine, their disconnection/connection, and what all of that says about Clarisse, but we also have Clarisse’s husband Richard who, after he has abandoned her, marries another woman named Clarisse. The novel’s strangest bits suggest a transformation in to a protective dog. The transgression of these boundaries, though, are based in psychological realism, leading to the novel’s fascinating conclusion.