The drama takes place in Bordeaux, a stay-at-home mother drowned her three young children. Master Susane is chosen by the husband to defend the accused. This is the first criminal trial of this lawyer. A promotion in short. In her twelfth novel, Marie Ndiaye (Goncourt Prize for Three Powerful Women, Gallimard 2009) turns like a glove the soul of Me Susane, 42, a lawyer concerned with doing well, without much prestige: old Twingo, few clients, business without interest. In a frozen winter Bordeaux, the novelist chisels the unparalleled portrait of this tormented woman, to the point of arousing the striking sensation of a gloomy reality. In pages invaded by a snowy climate of a cold opacity “conducive to illusions, to inner murmurs, to inspired, pugnacious, demanding rehashing”, the reader subtly insinuates himself into the meanders of the mind of the lawyer, assesses the degree of intensity of the pangs of her conscience, tasting the full panoply of her scruples and it is not with downcast eyes that one considers her, but rather in the privacy of the cubicle of her own existence. It is because Me Susane is a complex, ambivalent being, steeped in underground guilt. Immersed in the “lineage” of lawyers, after having extracted itself from its “proletarian origins”, without “the shadow of a feeling of inferiority”, it escapes all grasp, all definition.
All nerves straining for the truth
Good-willed, although noticeably paranoid, she can be condescending without wanting to. Towards Sharon, for example, a Mauritian without a residence permit, whom she hires to do nothing, with charitable thoughts in mind that are a little too fervent. She can take an interest in the fate of others and, suddenly, become indifferent to them, as soon as their places of life move away from her perception. We follow her in a sort of continuous flow of consciousness, from her office to her parents’ house: a father willingly down to earth, a little obtuse; a mother, delicate and emotional, that is to say the couple entity “so little clairvoyant, exhausting”, “protected from disgusting truths” …
Marie Ndiaye paints her portraits in relief, after having carefully prepared her backgrounds.
We see the lawyer embarrassed in front of Gilles Principaux, the father of the small victims, who came, from the first pages, to ask him to defend his wife. From the outset, she thinks she recognizes him as the young man from a good family, who decided on his vocation when she was 10 years old. Misunderstanding? “Nebulous memories”? Unfounded obsession? The man wears an “unseemly smile”. In his eyes, he is indistinguishable, at the same time cunning, naive and awkwardly seductive. He forms with his murderous wife an idiotic “team”, a “hazardous pairing”.
The reader obviously awaits the meeting in the visiting room with Marlyne, ordinary Medea, passed from the status of a “dull” and “boring” housewife to that of a “dark heroine”. His vertiginous monologue, in the tight writing, occupies ten pages, wobbly, bumped, with sentences punctuated by “But”, a locution of objection, of stopping in the momentum. We perceive violently his submission to the husband, his identity shrunk so as not to disturb, his “obedience to excess”, to the point of having silenced, “forever”, disturbing children … Returning to the fatal act , Marlyne describes it confusedly, as if they were drowning kittens. Of the second boy, she said: “I put it gently under the water”, he was “conciliatory”. The bridegroom’s breathless monologue is punctuated by “because”. These phrases follow one another at a pace that has gone mad, that proper to an overworked, anxious man, overwhelmed on all sides. A thousand symptoms are written, from a hostile universe forever out of tune. Are the names themselves not at fault? Doesn’t it look like a letter is missing from Marlyne’s first name?
Marie Ndiaye does not hide anything, in the course of a writing of a merciless lucidity, all in nerves stretched towards the truth, however obscure it. She paints her portraits in relief, after having, like the painter, carefully prepared her backgrounds. The novel, at this degree of reflection and human depth, does it not still come under knowledge in the strong sense?