In the latest by Marie NDiaye, a tale of crimes real and possibly unreal is heightened by audaciously perceptive prose.
Vengeance Is Mine, by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump,
Knopf, 226 pages, $28
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No one could legitimately call Marie NDiaye “overlooked.” The fifty-six-year-old French Senegalese novelist won the Prix Goncourt in 2009, was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and has published over a dozen widely and enthusiastically reviewed works, among them the novel Three Strong Women (2009), a bestseller in France. She is, in other words, demonstrably laureled. Nonetheless, the magnificence of her writing, in all its shocks of perception, makes you feel that by rights her name should come with the same pantheonic glow that attends, say, Annie Ernaux or Elena Ferrante.
What makes her a master? In part, it’s NDiaye’s deft interweaving of those narrative traits we associate with genre fiction, specifically crime thrillers—suspense, mystery, intrigue, a touch of the supernatural—with a high-modernist sensibility in thrall to the shifting, refractive nature of memory, unsettled selfhood, and intersubjectivity tout court. To attempt to summarize NDiaye’s approach—this blend of the heady high and supposed low—is to properly appreciate what an unruly mix it is, one that surely risks chaos, or, worse, pretension. What a feat, then, that the author invariably marshals these strains into lucid sophistication, not least in her newest book, the superbly controlled Vengeance Is Mine, translated by her regular collaborator Jordan Stump.
It wouldn’t be untrue, only inadequate, to call this a crime novel. After all, our protagonist is a lawyer, and the narrative is set in motion by murder. Susane is forty-two, only modestly successful, and lives alone in Bordeaux, where she employs a young housekeeper, Sharon, who perhaps hates her. The evasive Sharon appears to be concealing some baleful secret, but the main problem is that she matters far too much to her employer: Susane craves Sharon’s affection to an untenable degree. Their class and power differential seems to excruciate the middle-aged woman, who’s bewildered to sense herself as the object of Sharon’s pity. When invited to someone’s house for dinner (we suspect this is a fairly rare occurrence for the introverted lawyer), she’ll try and force their fraught relationship into the shape of a funny story: “She would cry out, heated and waggish, japing and pained: ‘Can you imagine, my Sharon doesn’t envy me at all, quite the contrary!’ ”
Susane is ashamed to drive a crappy Twingo rather than the sort of status car that would impress her parents. She is close to them; they’re good people to whom she’s painfully devoted. Indeed, “sometimes it so hurt her to love them that she wished, tormented, wretched, and ashamed, that they would just disappear!” Here a familiar NDiayan (the author deserves her own adjective) theme emerges—the guilt and burden of filial love. In the insidiously devastating Ladivine (2013), for example, a young woman disowns her working-class single mother, whom she comes to think of as “The Servant,” and who bears this mistreatment beatifically. In Vengeance Is Mine, the suffering seems, by contrast, to be mutual. Considering her parents, Susane wonders, “And in their immeasurable love, did they sometimes wish for a respite from that love, did they sometimes wish [Maître] Susane would disappear? She would have understood perfectly, she told herself.”
Proud of their lawyer daughter, they nonetheless have a deep aversion to learning about her interesting cases:
“Stop!” they would cry, in a tone at once playful and firm, “it’s too awful, we don’t want to hear about it!”
And then she felt vaguely dirty, indecent, amoral, because she was captivated by that sort of thing.
What does that dismissive, euphemistic “that sort of thing” refer to? Bluntly put, to human depravity—which, on the rare occasions that “interesting” cases add to her mostly boring load, unavoidably becomes Susane’s métier. Two crimes haunt this novel. One is terrible, and terribly real. The other is elusive, opaque, and maybe imagined. The first is the murder of three small children by their mother, Marlyne, a housewife who had seemed dedicated to her offspring, betrayed no previous signs of psychological instability, and who appears—to echo Susane’s earlier thoughts about her parents—to have simply wished for a respite from her own immeasurable love, and to have achieved it via triple homicide. The second possible transgression concerns the question of what happened to Susane three decades prior, in a teenage boy’s bedroom, when she was a girl of ten. What she can remember is this boy’s approval and her eagerness to please. But why does Susane’s father insist now, decades later, that she was abused—“What would he get from that, tell me, exacting my confession after so many years?”
Throughout, the icy, bright audacity of NDiaye’s language made me scrawl inch-high exclamation points of delight in the margins. How about thoughts that “stream from her mind like eggs in a spawning bed.” Or that Susane’s ostensibly pleasant memory of an older boy’s interest should be lodged in the subject’s soul as “an encysted tumor.” More audacious yet, that metaphor is repeated just a few lines later; this time it has traveled from thought into speech:
“What that boy is, Mama, is the encystment of pure joy!”
“Yes,” said Madame Susane.
The brief response from her mother, so bizarrely detached after that extravagantly strange figure of speech, delivers a jolt of awkward humor.
The two mysteries, the mother’s motive in murdering her children and the question of what happened in that room so long ago, become psychologically imbricated for Susane when the bereaved father seeks out her legal services. That man, Gilles Principaux, is—she suspects but cannot know (and is driven mad by not knowing)—the same teenage boy she’d essentially fallen in love with thirty-two years ago. Susane is also handling what seems like a straightforward case, that of Sharon’s residency permit request for her family. But why does the housekeeper refuse to produce her marriage certificate? And why does asking her about it make Susane feel “absurdly embarrassed, as if she’d done some sort of violence to Sharon’s wholesome morality”?
The plot is accelerated by these enigmas, while the prose fruitfully resists this velocity, submerging you into time-stretched and sensation-heightened dimensions. A friend once played me a Justin Bieber song that had been slowed down by 800 percent. “U Smile,” a trite little burst of sugary pop, was now transfigured into thirty-five minutes of shimmering, transcendent washes of sound that felt like an appropriate score for the cosmos. It remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. NDiaye does something like this with words. No life, no matter how modest or compromised or confused, is banal; through her telling and her talents, stray, lone consciousnesses are magnified to the epic.
Hermione Hoby is the author of the novels Neon in Daylight and Virtue. Her criticism has appeared in Harper’s, the New Yorker’s Page-Turner, the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, frieze, and elsewhere.