“But what’s the word for a male florist?” my eight-year-old daughter asks. I know that terms like authoress and woman of letters are no longer irregularities in terms of vocabulary, but in terms of judgment? Hard to say. It’s amusing to see, in a Larousse dictionary from the nineteenth century (1866–1879), the following entry: “AUTRICE: Bygone feminine form, now obsolete, of the word auteur.” But there remain so many injustices, so many inequalities, that our sensitivity around the issue is deservedly deep and unforgiving. Gender is no laughing matter, not even for us Frogs (this being the feminine derivation of frogman, naturally). And a lady chef? There is no word for her in French other than cheftaine: not the most appetizing option, but then we all must play the chards we’ve dealt for ourselves. The Swiss and the Québécois have opted for cheffe. Marie NDiaye does too, in A Cook’s Novel [La Cheffe].
And for good reason. Cheffe is a perfectly acceptable word, pleasing to the eye and ear as much as it is to our sense of parity. It applies perfectly to Marie NDiaye herself, who has written so many fine books. After Three Strong Women (winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2009) and Ladivine, she offers us another portrait of a woman comfortable in her own skin, in that hypnotic prose that stalks and surrounds its subject as though hypnotizing it, then swoops down and spears it with one or two impeccably chosen epithets. The adjective is the chiseled tip of Marie NDiaye’s slow, majestic language: recall those “hard, efficient mirrors” of Ladivine. It’s a language that moves like an eagle, a shark, a cobra—circling its prey and then striking, suddenly and without error.