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Power and Uncertainty in Marie NDiaye’s “Vengeance is Mine”

Power and Uncertainty in Marie NDiaye’s “Vengeance is Mine”

  • A review of Marie NDiaye's latest novel, "Vengeance is Mine."

The protagonist of Vengeance is Mine, (translated by Jordan Stump from La Vengeance m’appartient), Marie NDiaye’s twelfth novel, is known to the reader only by her title and surname. A French lawyer, she is Maître Susane, and at the novel’s opening, she has recently opened a struggling law practice. She drives an ancient car that she hopes encourages others to see her as “a woman of discreetly eccentric charm,” but really, she yearns to be able to buy a new one from a luxury brand. When she visits her doting parents, she parks down the street so that they won’t be reminded of her failures. As in much of NDiaye’s work, the novel’s tension turns around the gap between its main character’s self-knowledge, the perception of others, and reality.

NDiaye won the 2009 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, for her novel Trois Femmes puissantes, translated into English as Three Strong Women by John Fletcher. Having published her first novel when she was only 17, Ndiaye is also a successful playwright, with her work having entered into the canon of the Académie Française. In Vengeance is Mine, her frequent translator Jordan Stump does an admirable job transferring NDiaye’s sinuous and precise style into elegant English.

At the book’s beginning, a chance encounter raises questions that lead to the slow unraveling of Maître Susane’s sense of self. Gilles Principaux has come to her law office in Bordeaux on behalf of his wife, who has confessed to drowning their three young children in the bath. Rather than focusing on the horror of the crime, Maître Susane is distracted by the sense that she has met Principaux before. In fact, she believes that an encounter she had with him when she was ten and he was fourteen or fifteen, accompanying her mother who worked as a housekeeper, may have changed the course of her life. The novel’s early pages present us with a clear, central mystery: what happened in that room decades before? Maître Susane maintains that the encounter was a lively exchange of ideas that influenced her to become a lawyer. Her father hints that she must have been sexually abused. For many novelists, this would be the mystery around which the rest of the book might revolve, the author circling and slowly narrowing in on the truth of that encounter. But as anyone familiar with NDiaye’s work might expect, this mystery remains unsolved. In fact, NDiaye heaps uncertainty upon uncertainty; Principaux does not seem to recognize Maître Susane, and she comes to doubt that he is the person she encountered all those years ago after all.

For many readers, the novel’s infanticide subplot is likely to be the most memorable of the novel’s threads. NDiaye shares a writing credit on the screenplay of the 2022 film Saint Omer, which follows the trial of a young Senegalese immigrant who left her infant on the beach to drown. In Saint Omer, the defendant and her husband each present their own contradictory versions of the circumstances that led to the death of their child. In Vengeance is Mine, Marlyne and Gilles present their viewpoints in opposing bravura monologues. Naturally, not all of the readers’ questions are answered, but what emerges is a portrait of a husband exercising a kind of subtle psychological control, rendered all the more insidious because he was in every way a “good” man, just as she was a “perfect” mother.

As Maître Susane attempts to parse the difficulties of the Principaux case, she also finds herself overextended at home. She has hired Sharon, an illegal immigrant from Mauritius, as her housekeeper, even though she doesn’t need or want a housekeeper. She insists on helping Sharon to obtain legal residency papers, although it is unclear if Sharon ever expressed a desire for her to do so. Maître Susane is then flummoxed by Sharon’s persistent refusal to produce the necessary papers to begin the process. As in all her work, NDiaye reveals a keen awareness of power differentials and the way that class, race, gender, and culture underlie everyday human interactions. What is so striking about her work is that this awareness exists alongside a profound appreciation of individual psychology; her characters are often sensitive women who find themselves locked in subtle battles of control. As in much of her previous work, the use of the close third-person perspective in Vengeance is Mine creates a sense of both claustrophobia and mystery; we remain locked inside of Maître Susane’s thoughts and perceptions, just as we remained locked within our own.

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Summary is especially insufficient at capturing the unsettling and disturbing qualities of NDiaye’s best fiction. As in Three Strong Women, Vengeance is Mine poses more questions than it answers, and despite its relatively happy ending (for Maître Susane, at least), the overall effect, as in most of NDiaye’s work, is a sense of abiding unease. Certain readers might well tire of NDiaye’s penchant for mysteries that are never solved, but one of NDiaye’s main themes appears to be the enigma of human motivation. In Saint Omer, the French legal system, based on Enlightenment principles of reason, proves insufficient at understanding a crime springing from deeply irrational impulses. Vengeance is Mine is also invested in the idea that people are often unknown and unknowable, even to themselves.

Vengeance is Mine
By Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Alfred A. Knopf
Published October 17, 2023

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