Realistically chilling in spite of — and because of — their absurdity and lingering mystery, Marie NDiaye’s novels are becoming ever more important to me as they look deeply into the hearts of troubled individuals, fighting against their very selves. My Heart Hemmed In is the latest to be transalted into English, and it is my favorite. I suspect, though, that that’s only in part due to the book itself. I’m sure the other part is that I’m becoming more in tune with what NDiaye is doing, more adept at reading her strange tales, so I’m getting more out of each book. Certainly, I loved this one from page one until the end, reading it almost non-stop over a few otherwise hazy days in July.
This book concerns the time when Nadia becomes “estranged from my own existence.” For years she and her husband Ange have apparently been well liked school teachers, quite proud of their desire and ability to make a positive change in their students’ lives. But, from the very first page, we see, just as Nadia and Ange see, that something is not right. Each of the book’s 38 chapters has a title that is more like a brief sentence or thought. The first one is simply “When did it start?”
Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can’t really mean me, can they?
When I summon my courage and mention this to Ange, at the dinner table, he pauses for a moment, sheepish or troubled, and tells me he’s noticed the same thing with him. Looking into my eyes, he asks if I think his students have some grievance against him, or if through him they’re aiming at me, knowing I’m his wife.
The first fifteen pages or so are a wonderful exploration of growing paranoia, Nadia constantly wondering, “What have people been telling them?” She is, after all, a valuable member of the community, someone who should be looked up to, and who, to now, always has been.
Then, one day on her walk home from school — she and Ange barely speaking any more because the weight of scorn is too heavy — Nadia sees a man walking hunched over. In NDiaye’s beautiful fog, we and Nadia come to realize that it’s Ange. She doesn’t even seem able to recognize her own husband anymore. And he’s hunched like that because something terrible has happened to him at school. He now has a gaping wound in his stomach.
With this, Ange seems to shift to the other side, to the group that is against Nadia. She doesn’t know what happened to him. He, and everyone else, says she knows exactly what happened to him.
Perhaps in her heart she does. She is the first-person narrator of the book, but NDiaye seems to include deeper thoughts — perhaps more honest, maybe not, but certainly less comfortable — in italics throughout the novel. For example, the following paragraph comes in the midst of Nadia’s interactions with and thoughts about a variety of events, but it shows up with the emphasis:
What exactly am I not supposed to see? And why doe she imagine I’m hoping to see it, whatever it is? Doesn’t he know me, doesn’t he know I always want to know as little as possible of things that fill me with horror?
Of course, one of Nadia’s central problems may be an unwillingness to see whatever horror it is that’s beset her and her home. There’s the sinking thought she has near the beginning of the book: “I’ve always believed that no disgrace is ever completely unearned.” This could be some ploy, though, to make the reader think her someone willing to recognize her faults, making her all the more sympathetic as a victim.
That’s a question I wrestled with throughout the novel: is she a victim of unearned prejudice? The novel is not quick to answer this question, and it’s too complex an issue to be fully resolved in the pages. Nadia, like Ladivine in NDiaye’s beautiful book of the same name (which I reviewed here), is not comfortable with her past. What has she done to hide it? What role has she had in fostering prejudice against her. What kind of awful things does prejudice — class, race, gender — foster in people who really just want to live their lives?
There’s a kind, if reluctant benefactor who decides to help Nadia early in the novel. This may be the most terrifying thing this “kind” person could have unwittingly said:
I shouldn’t be helping you, but I am anyway, to show that I don’t agree, and to show that I at least haven’t forgotten who you really are.