Recently longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Marie NDiaye’s latest novel, Ladivine (translated by longtime collaborator Jordan Stump), is a family saga that focuses on the lives of four generations of women struggling with issues of identity, selfhood, and how to be mothers and daughters. The narrative lulls the reader with its often dreamlike qualities—making the interruptions of violence, horror and loss all the more frightening and shocking.
Ladivine begins with the story of Clarisse Rivière, a mother happy with her structured life. Having started out as a waitress in a pizzeria, she has worked her way up to become its manager. She’s proud of her house, in love with her husband Richard, and an indulgent mother to her daughter.
But Clarisse has a secret: she’s not Clarisse at all. She’s Malinka, and once a month she travels to Bordeaux to visit her mother, one of two Ladivines of the novel’s title. And here we discover the crisis that defines Clarisse’s life and which runs throughout NDiaye’s work: identity.
Malinka has grown up in relative poverty with no ties to any other family members. She resents that she and her mother are nobodies, that “Malinka and her mother meant nothing to anyone.” Her mother cleans the houses of richer women and, with the cruelty of a teenage girl, Malinka tells her school friends that her mother is her servant. Throughout the novel, Clarisse refers to Ladivine interchangeably as both “mother” and “servant.”
When she’s not cleaning, her mother waits at home for Malinka’s absent father to (never) come home. Malinka has inherited her father’s light skin and, when she realizes this, she also realizes “a thing long known but never quite grasped […] being that woman’s daughter filled her with horrible shame and fear.”
After leaving school, Malinka decides to do something about her “repugnance at the thought of letting it be seen […] that she was the daughter of a woman of no consequence.” She discards her old life, her mother, and her name. Moving to Bordeaux, she becomes Clarisse, declares to the world that her parents are dead, and starts perfecting the performance of her new identity:
That perfectly beautiful girl bore the perfect name of Clarisse, and by a wonderful stroke of luck she was that girl, that Clarisse, whose previous life and old name no-one could guess, for, so smooth and so beautiful, she offered the world the very image of harmony and unity. How lucky to be that girl.
Her escape is short-lived. Malinka’s mother follows her to Bordeaux and finds the restaurant where “Clarisse” works. In a stunning, evocative passage that is overt in its racial politics, NDiaye focuses intimately on Malinka’s rejection of her mother—her embarrassment, her shame, and her fear of being connected to that “woman of no consequence”:
But her boss knew, she knew everything, and she looked at Clarisse without hostility, with a sort of hard sadness, as if Clarisse had betrayed her, but she understood and accepted it, then her eyes once again swept over Clarisse’s long legs, narrow hips and thin face, now probably not to measure that slender body’s resilience but to gauge its likeness to that other body, the body of the black woman sitting up very straight in her chair near the window.
Clarisse finally escapes her mother through marriage. The love she feels for her husband is described joyously and passionately: it’s “happy, bubbly and light,” as opposed to the “angry, exhausting, guilty love” she feels for her mother.
From there, things should be easy for Clarisse. And yet, NDiaye shows us that Clarisse’s happiness is just as much of an illusion as her assumed name. However much she tries to project an “image of harmony and unity,” Clarisse is trapped in a conflict between her identity as Clarisse and her identity as Malinka; a conflict which NDiaye illustrates through Clarisse’s inability to fully renounce her past:
although in reality never seeing her mother again would have tormented her cruelly, it was a delectable dream, and it filled her with savage, dizzying joy.
When she visits her mother’s flat, Malinka feels pity for her—she pities the pain her mother experiences at being so rejected by her daughter. NDiaye describes how:
the pity did come […] and it was still there, still throbbing and hurting the instant she saw her mother again.
But there was nothing that pity could do, because her will was stronger.
She would leap to her feet, making her mother start in surprise.
She would snatch up her bag and rush out as always…
In order to abandon her mother at the end of every visit, Clarisse must renounce pity or sympathy, and instead access what NDiaye refers to as the “deep, inexhaustible reserves of coldness inside her.” And here lies the emotional dilemma that causes such pain and confusion to Clarisse: she’s trapped between the pity she feels for her mother, and the “dizzying joy” that overcomes her when she leaves her. NDiaye uses intensely physical language to fully exploit that shocking move from pity to joy. She describes how, upon leaving her mother, Clarisse “lost in that bliss, […] had fainted at the end of the street.” The fainting marks a physical transition from one state to another: at her mother’s house she is Malinka, she is “nothing to anyone,” she is her mother’s daughter. Fainting at the end of the street, she re-awakens as Clarisse, and resumes her role as the perfectly beautiful girl with the husband and daughter. Reborn as Clarisse, she is no longer a relation of the “servant.” After pity,
her excitement always won out, and she couldn’t help skipping like a child on the way to the station, her skin warming, flushed with the repressed fervor consuming her, the joy and sorrow of freedom.
It’s this conflict between joy and sorrow, between her two identities, that is Clarisse’s undoing. For much of the first part of the novel, the reader falls in with Clarisse’s self-identification. Clarisse, having perfected her performance, believes that her husband and daughter have no suspicions that she has another existence, another life. As far as the reader is concerned, there is no reason to doubt Clarisse’s version of events—they believe, alongside her, that the “man and the child […] suspected nothing, and enjoyed her generosity in naïve good faith.”
And yet as the novel progresses, NDiaye shows how Clarisse’s central lie starts to unravel:
Far more painful for her was fidelity to her irreversible decision, which was destroying Malinka’s mother over a slow flame, and her too, Clarisse Rivière, with a brighter flame, more violent, perhaps purifying, but she didn’t yet know—she did not know, and simply went on hoping in fear.
It’s the reader’s first clue that Clarisse’s hope is unsustainable. Despite her staunch obstinacy, Clarisse cannot fully inhabit her new role. To protect her Malinka identity, she has “constructed a thin wall of ice all around her, that sometimes her husband and her daughter could not understand,” while at the same time convincing herself that “they knew nothing of it.” Because she has convinced herself, the reader is convinced too. So it comes as a real shock to both Clarisse and the reader when Richard leaves the marriage.
Later on in the narrative, NDiaye reveals Richard’s perspective. He couldn’t live with never knowing the truth about his wife; frustrated by the knowledge that she was hiding something about herself, something she refused to reveal to him. As the reader is allowed to view Clarisse as Richard sees her, they finally understand just how untenable her performance of identity was. When he reflects on his wife’s behavior, Richard notes that:
Clarisse Rivière was often awkward, shy beyond reason, unsure of herself—but that very diffidence had no depth to it.
Richard Rivière sometimes thought her a mere illusion of a human being, not wanting to be, perhaps not knowing she was—he couldn’t say.
With the disconnection between Clarisse/Malinka’s internal notion of self and the external impression Richard sees, NDiaye prompts the reader to question everything they have read before. No longer able to trust Clarisse’s version of events, the reader is left asking who can be trusted in the novel, what is performance and what is reality.
With Richard’s departure, a huge gap opens up between the Clarisse that the reader thinks they know, and Clarisse as she’s seen by her family. From the girl who presents herself as “so pretty, so good-humored, so good at her job… so perfectly healthy and trim,” the reader meets Clarisse the empty shell, the “illusion.” Rather than the confident woman Malinka thinks she’s created in Clarisse, her family sees a blank entity who never ventures her own opinion, who shifts her views and identity to suit the preferences of those around her. There’s no unity in her existence because she’s paralyzed by the fear of being found out. As a result, she never allows anyone to learn anything about her.
Clarisse is therefore destined to repeat the very acts she despises in the “servant.” Like her mother, she finds herself alone, longing for the return of the man she loves. From her self-image as an active agent with her own life, NDiaye reveals to us that Clarisse’s crisis of identity has led to her becoming that dreaded “nothing to anyone.”
When Richard leaves her, Clarisse becomes involved with the insalubrious Freddy Molinger, whose life has been dogged by tragedy and violence. With Freddy, she becomes Malinka again, finding some measure of relief in re-incorporating her old self into her identity: “She was simply herself, Malinka, in all the innocence of her ephemeral, precarious presence on this earth.” But her innocence makes her vulnerable. Malinka has never grown up, never learnt to distrust people, and never learnt how to keep herself safe. She takes everyone at face value—accepting everything, trusting everyone. Her tragic naïveté leads her into a world of horror and unspeakable violence.
NDiaye’s questions of identity relate to the feminist and post-colonial themes that can be found across her work. French feminist theory is often concerned with de Beauvoir’s idea that “one is not born, but becomes a woman”—that cultural markers of femininity are constructs that women must assume in order to be accepted and acceptable. With Clarisse, NDiaye creates a character who is totally preoccupied with performance. Her whole life is defined by the need to portray a perfect ideal of womanhood to her husband and child. Feminist thought would argue that, like Clarisse, women are trapped in the performance of femininity demanded by a patriarchal society—femininity that is both rewarded and deemed inferior.
The second half of the novel is told through the perspective of the younger Ladivine, Clarisse and Richard’s daughter. Later on, the narrative shifts into Ladivine’s daughter Annika’s voice, as well as Richard Rivière, and finally Malinka’s mother: Ladivine Sylla.
In the repetition of the name Ladivine, NDiaye highlights the impossibility Clarisse faces in her struggle to both reject and love her mother: she wants Ladivine (senior) to have no part in her life, and doesn’t even tell her mother that she is married with a daughter. And yet, in calling her child Ladivine, she brings her mother right into the heart of her family, even while continuing to dismiss her as the “servant”: “When the child was born, she named her Ladivine. That was the servant’s first name.” Like her mother’s, Ladivine’s life is governed by hidden lives and conflicts of identity. Through Ladivine’s struggle with identity and truth, NDiaye illustrates to us the impact Clarisse’s “fanatical obstinance” has had on her family. Where her family history should be, Ladivine is presented with a lacuna. As the reader knows, Clarisse has lied to Ladivine throughout her life and concealed her family’s origins. NDiaye explores Clarisse’s rejection of her family history early on in the novel, showing how:
Clarisse Rivière had forgotten the name of the town she grew up in, as she had forgotten virtually everything having to do with the life of the girl named Malinka.
The legacy of Clarisse’s deliberate forgetfulness is passed on to Ladivine, who of course doesn’t even realize that there is a history that has been forgotten. She’s accepted the lies her mother told—why wouldn’t she? She doesn’t know there’s an older Ladivine in Bordeaux, she doesn’t know that Clarisse was once Malinka and, as a result, she’s a woman without history, and, despite being a wife and mother herself, a woman without family—a theme that is a key concern in post-colonial writing.
NDiaye emphasizes this lack of history, and the questions and gaps it opens up, through Ladivine’s reaction to arriving in an unnamed country on a family holiday with her husband and two children. It is tempting for the reader to try and identify the country they’re visiting. It seems tropical – so the reader asks is it in Africa? Is it in the Caribbean? Is it connected to Ladivine or Clarisse in anyway? And yet, at every guess, the reader is bamboozled. NDiaye keeps the country’s identity a staunch secret – just as Ladivine’s family history has been kept secret from her.
Although she has never visited this country before, Ladivine finds herself responding intensely to the landscape around her. She is confronted with a strong sense of déjà vu, believing that she has had these experiences before:
In what dream had she as it were made a date with this woman and this glass and this thick juice, whose sweetness in her throat was exactly what she’d already known, though she’d never before drunk the juice of a freshly-pureed mango?
With this incident, NDiaye starts to warp Ladivine’s sense of reality. She knows she cannot have been to this country before, yet is convinced that in some other time she drank this mango juice and met the woman serving her. This strengthens the question in the reader’s mind as to whether the country or at least the region Ladivine is visiting might have some unspoken connection to her unknown heritage. Is she experiencing déjà vu because this country is part of her past? Or is it another way for NDiaye to explore the shifting nature of self and identity? If, throughout Clarisse’s narrative, the challenge to identity is evoked by the central lie and the performance of a new identity, then for Ladivine, her time on holiday is spent encountering more and more situations where her identity and sense of self is questioned, challenged, or forced to change.
This erasing of women’s history can be read as a further feminist question at the heart of the novel. Clarisse has deleted her own history—and her failure to pass on this history has left Ladivine with a lack that she only starts to recognize when she travels to this unknown country. Through the family saga, NDiaye reflects on a wider story about the erasure of women’s history, which is particularly pertinent to women of color, where the erasure intersects with both sexism and racism. The reader can interpret Ladivine’s journey as a moment of re-connecting with a history that has been denied to her—just as histories of women’s lives, women’s cultures, and women’s stories have traditionally been erased and silenced, and then re-discovered and re-invigorated through feminist writing and activism.
Readers familiar with NDiaye’s wider work will not be surprised to see the themes of identity explored in Ladivine. NDiaye repeatedly creates situations where her characters are left questioning what they know of their own histories and how their past has an impact on their present. In her Prix-Goncourt-winning novel Three Strong Women (also translated by Jordan Stump), Norah is confronted with these questions when she returns to her parents’ country, while Rudy acts out a tragicomic crisis of identity on returning to France after living in his father’s homeland of Senegal. Many of NDiaye’s short stories also play around with constructs of identity, and ideas of costume and self-presentation versus how we are viewed in the world.
This interest in identity and creation of illusion is something NDiaye acknowledges as a concern in her work, describing Ladivine as a novel about “a lie and an illusion.”
NDiaye’s inimitable voice and prose style, made up of short paragraphs with sentences broken up into brief sections by semi-colons or commas, is particularly suited to Ladivine. The lulling quality of NDiaye’s prose can feel very slow-paced, as the reader sinks into the reflective inner-monologues of each character, making the explosions of violence and horror into the novel so powerful and frightening. She focuses the reader in on the characters’ thought processes—how they form, reject, and re-form their ideas and impressions. The story is very much revealed to us through interior narratives of Ladivine Junior and Senior, Clarisse, and Annika. Giving women their own stories, their own narratives and their own subjectivity is in itself a feminist act.
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the feminist blogsianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for The Guardian, The Independent, and The New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, “The Boys on the Bus,” is available on Kindle.