VENGEANCE IS MINE, by Marie NDiaye. Translated by Jordan Stump.
The characters in Marie NDiaye’s novels are an unsettling brood. They fret and pace around their homes, tormented by their pasts. Their minds trap and trick them. A daughter can’t shake memories of her mother’s murder; a man gropes for the truth about his imprisonment in a deserted vacation town; a chef pursues culinary perfection at any cost; a woman — reminded of a friend, a schoolteacher or was it her mother? — fatally chases an apparition in green.
We meet these figures in their worst states. They’ve been run ragged by despair, exhausted by distress. Their warped realities coagulate into a strange and curdled mass. NDiaye, a French author of a dozen books and a handful of plays, is a master at agitating, probing and upending expectations. In her latest offering, “Vengeance Is Mine,” dutifully translated by Jordan Stump, she presents a new litter of misfits and constructs one of her most beguiling and visceral tales.
The novel kicks off with a meeting between Maître Susane, an industrious lawyer who has just opened her own practice in Bordeaux, and Gilles Principaux, a charmed and alluring professorial man seeking legal representation for his wife, Marlyne, who murdered their three children. Maître Susane knows the couple’s situation from the news, but she takes the case because she recognizes Gilles from her childhood. Wasn’t he the teenage boy “permanently lodged in her soul,” she wonders. The one who made the modest attorney yearn for life beyond her working-class milieu?
Something happened in Principaux’s bedroom 30 years ago, but exactly what remains opaque to Maître Susane, who can neither remember the details of the incident nor make sense of the fear she feels around Gilles. NDiaye describes their encounter in vague, almost shimmering terms — Gilles “enraptured” Maître Susane; he was the “encystment of pure joy” — that assume a more sinister sheen later on.
As in NDiaye’s other novels, the story lives not in the incident but its aftermath. The mystery grips Maître Susane. She spirals toward a nervous breakdown. “Who, to her, was Gilles Principaux?” The question — the novel’s refrain — contaminates the lawyer’s relationships. It alienates her from her parents, who fearfully dismiss her memories, and disturbs her attorney-client meetings with Marlyne.
It snakes its way into Maître Susane’s home, disrupting an already unstable relationship with Sharon, her diligent housekeeper from Mauritius. Desperation and distance define their interactions. Maître Susane pines for approval from this African woman, a yearning that aligns the lawyer with other NDiaye characters harboring a faint racial angst. Determined to do right by Sharon, she takes on her complicated citizenship case, which is stalled by the absence of the calm steward’s marriage papers. Retrieving them unwittingly plunges Maître Susane into another adventure.
In “Vengeance Is Mine,” NDiaye circles a familiar configuration of ideas: trauma and memory, class anxiety, isolation and otherness, the warped savagery of domestic life, the rupture between parents and their children. But she also considers the texture of justice — what it means, how it’s determined and who enacts it. Maître Susane counsels on the law but can’t find redress for her own problems. She’s the lawyer, but who holds the power in her interactions with Gilles, with Marlyne, with Sharon?
NDiaye deals in impressions and captures a particular kind of emotional delirium in “Vengeance.” She leans into jaggedness, twisting her narrative to mimic Maître Susane’s fraying psychological state as she searches for a kind of truth. Intrusive ellipses, a legion of conjunctions and abrupt paragraph breaks reflect the lawyer’s unraveling. Appreciating this moody, sensual and sometimes feverish prose requires submission — to the grooves of language, the performance of storytelling. Maître Susane’s thoughts are strewn across the page in a way that, at first, feels haphazard, but there is an organizing principle at play. It’s a subtle query, a haunting inversion of the novel’s refrain. Perhaps the question is not who is Gilles Principaux but who, to us, is Maître Susane?
Lovia Gyarkye, formerly an associate editor at The New York Times Magazine Labs, is a critic at The Hollywood Reporter.
VENGEANCE IS MINE | By Marie NDiaye | Translated by Jordan Stump | 226 pp. | Knopf | $28