Fair warning: Guilt, shame, grief, cruelty — the denser flavors of the human dynamic — make for intense reading. Not handled well, such heavyweight emotions easily turn to stone. But the sharp-edged writing in Marie NDiaye's second novel, Ladivine, warrants spending time with her bleak vision of reality. Committed readers may find unexpected rewards in the harrowing twists and turns this gloomy family drama takes.
NDiaye's previous book, Three Strong Women, earned copious critical praise and took home the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Unflinching and hypnotic, her work has been called out for its uncanny ability to grasp the deeply inflected nuances of the heart. Now comes Ladivine, a tale of three generations of women who share a trauma that they are unable to overcome. Can an etched-in-French saga survive the cultural and linguistic translation to the English-speaking world? Suffering crosses all boundaries, and this is one journey even non-Francophiles will find engrossing.
When we first meet the title character, she is a middle-aged woman living in genteel poverty in a single, ground-floor Bordeaux apartment "filled with hominess and melancholy." She dotes on her porcelain trinkets, which she obsessively rearranges as she eagerly awaits the once-monthly visits of her only child. Names are protean here, changed and repeated in ways that speak to the universality of the characters. Ladvine's daughter has two names: Malinka, the name her mother gave her, and Clarisse, the name she bestowed upon herself when she left home.
The early plot turns on Clarisse's barely contained fury over the circumstances of her birth. As a schoolgirl, she began describing her mother to peers as the family maid, and throughout the novel Ladivine is often referred to as "the servant." The adult Clarisse alternately despises and loves Ladivine, effectively withholding all significant details of her day-to-day existence. Ladivine has no idea that Clarisse Rivière is married and has a child of her own. She doesn't know where her daughter lives, how she survives, what is the tenor of her days. "It was, she sometimes thought, as if they could see each other perfectly through their masks, all the while knowing they'd never lower them." Within the tight, claustrophobic mother-daughter relationship, a brutal secrecy reigns.
There is more sorrow to come. Clarisse's daughter — in a forlorn familial gesture, she's also named Ladivine — reaches maturity and leaves home. Her husband Richard deserts her. Long suffering, meek, forever helpful but psychologically brittle, Clarisse merely helps pack Richard's suitcases and carries them downstairs for him as he leaves. His departure wounds her deeply, but she moves forward like a sleepwalker, still visiting her mother once a month for an afternoon of small talk and puff pastry.
NDiaye then shifts to the next generation, and we find Clarisse's daughter, Ladivine, in Berlin with her husband and two young children, Daniel and Annika. This Ladivine barely speaks to Clarisse, and her car-salesman father Richard has never visited or expressed any interested in his grandchildren. No one, it seems, knows each other, cares for each other, or can express it if they do. The character of Clarisse hangs over the book like a sour mist, one that envelopes the other members of her family. Yet each is magnetically drawn to her. She haunts Richard in particular. He has remarried, his new wife chosen for her name, Clarisse. The doubling and mirroring of names, identities and circumstances goes on like a perverted dance.
Biting details lend the prose body: Clarisse visits Berlin. Her daughter, Ladivine, walking behind, spots "her calloused heels, incongruously revealed by elegant sandals with multiple gilded straps." It is a sight that to Ladivine seems "to show again that Clarisse Rivière could never do anything right." A callus diguised beneath a golden strap seems a perfect metaphor for these individuals who camouflage their emotions and mask their identities.
When the knife falls — and it does, horribly — the daughter Ladivine plunges into a psychological labyrinth, elegantly evoked in all its horror by NDiaye. There is no happy ending for any of the characters; the only soul left unscathed is an unnamed brown dog that wanders like a ghost through the book. There is always the "deep hole of clinging, entangling emotions, of limp devotion and degrading resentment" that plagues the lot of them, in all their "drab saintliness." In facing the bottomless sink of human existence, NDiaye demands of the reader the same clear-eyed courage that she employs crafting this haunting, disturbing novel.
Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily atBlog Cabin.