#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews VENGEANCE IS MINE by Marie NDiaye

The man who timidly, almost fearfully entered her office on January 5, 2019 was, Maître Susane realised at once, someone she’d met before, long before, in a place whose memory came back to her with such force and clarity that it felt like a sharp clout to her forehead.

The opening sentence of Marie NDiaye’s latest novel (in impeccable English translation) thrusts the reader headlong into the psyche of French lawyer Maître Susane, the protagonist of this unsettling novel of trauma and unresolved lives. Marie NDiaye was a literary prodigy aged 17 when she published her first novel; 40 years later, with several novels, short stories, plays, screenplays and a Prix Goncourt (among many awards) behind her, she is undoubtedly one of France’s most famous living writers. As a reader it is a privilege to read her work, even if the experience leaves you feeling disturbed at the content and elated at its execution – both outcomes, you assume, deliberate on NDiaye’s part.

The man in the opening sentence is Gilles Principaux and he has approached Maître Susane (always referred to only by her honorific) to defend his wife Marlyne who has been arrested on suspicion of drowning their three children in the bath. The notorious case is national news in France. But why has he turned to her, a little-known lawyer from Bordeaux, with few cases to her name, to get us out of this nightmare? When she sees Principaux in her office, Maître Susane is jolted back to a day 32 years before when, aged ten, she accompanied her mother to the house of a wealthy family for whom she’d been ironing. The little girl had spent the afternoon in the bedroom of the teenage son, where something happened which changed her life for ever. But what? She has hidden away the memory, tightly wrapped inside her tightly controlled life. Seeing Gilles Principaux before her now, she recalls that it was the happiest and rightest (day) of her existence. Or did some terrible abuse take place? Was the man in her office today, that teenager? Maître Susane’s unravelling begins.

She is 42 years old, an only child of working-class parents (class relations are important in this novel), a single, unattractive woman “of strange intensity”, obsessively turning things over in her mind, imagining conversations, motives, what people think of her, believing herself mediocre, attempting to hide her mediocrity – and her humble origins – in a bravura performance of daily life, meticulously staged for her friends and parents:

Because she loved them so, and what else could she do but lie to them, or at least give them a glittering version of her existence, of the world in general, to shield them from the painful truth?

And:

M. Susane was quite happy to let her friends see her that way: bohemian, fanciful, independent – hoping deep down that in time their image of her would shape her, would force her to live up to it, and she would actually become a woman of discreetly eccentric charm.

A further central relationship in Maître Susane’s life is with her housekeeper Sharon, an undocumented, hard-working immigrant from Mauritius, as slim and energetic as she is wide and tall (a strange colossus). She is plagued by guilt at having a housekeeper, attempts to over-compensate, and becomes neurotically obsessed, turning her self-hatred into hatred of Sharon:

From the start, M. Susane had the feeling that Sharon saw her as a dimly, profoundly corrupted woman – a swamp.

And M. Susane hated that about Sharon.

There is profound sadness permeating the novel, with its narrator laid low by the sorrow of living. This depth of feeling and the ferocity of the revelations push you to question your own life and authenticity.  We are all being interrogated. What is the truth? When is Maître Susane – or Sharon or her parents – telling the truth?  Are we reading several conflicting versions of the truth? Does the truth matter? 

Everyone around Maître Susane is unreliable, it seems. But to call her an unreliable narrator is too simplistic. Scattered across the novel are lines in italics, unattributed but, we suspect, reflecting flashes of her honesty: O, my impetuous heart, be still, don’t reveal yourself! You read the novel as a thriller, breathlessly, dissecting each sentence for ‘clues’; exhausted at the intensity of Maître Susane’s mental battles and the sorrow she embodies. And at the centre of the novel is an horrific crime of infanticide, which is frankly hard to read: three adorable and adored infants are murdered by their mother, both parents apparently unmoved by the crime and their loss. We ask, could the two shocking central events of this novel, today and yesterday, be linked? Could the two women, Marlyne Principaux and Maitre Susane, be connected in some way? So many questions and, in true NDiaye style, few answers and no easy resolution. Does ‘vengeance’ ultimately take place? Is Maitre Susane relieved of her terrible burden? The questions continue to the end. The great achievement of this novel is that you finish it feeling as unsettled as you were at the beginning. 

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

VENGEANCE IS MINE

Written by Marie NDiaye

Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

Published by MacLehose Press (2023)

December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director and Founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018–2020.

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