For Clarisse Rivière, born Malinka Scylla, identity is inseparable from guilt. She changes her name to escape her origin as the daughter of a poor, single mother. To her school classmates, Malinka becomes Clarisse, and her mother, Ladivine, becomes her servant. One life becomes two, and Clarisse makes sure to keep it that way: “Of Clarisse Rivière, Malinka’s mother knew nothing.”
This decision to split her identity between the life she was born with and life she wants to have ensures that Clarisse/Malinka never gets to live either. She separates herself from her mother geographically, visiting only once a month. She marries a man who never asks questions about her family because of his difficult relationship with his own. But when she and that man have a daughter, she names it Ladivine, an homage to the mother she excised from her life. Clarisse’s mother is a weight around her neck, one she uses to explain anything bad that happens to her, thinking of the situation as a “bitter bread” she has forced upon her mother.
While her husband and daughter are kept from learning about the elder Ladivine, they do know that Clarisse is always holding some part of herself back. Their lives, too, become infected, even if they don’t understand why. The younger Ladivine grows up to have her own family, and her relationship with them is always undercut by a sense of estrangement and uncertainty. She calls her children “muted and indecipherable.” Both she and her husband seek to exert impossible levels of control over their lives, while longing for a release from the burden of that control.
This story requires a high level and intensity of emotional truth, and NDiaye’s prose in Ladivine, translated masterfully by Jordan Stump, completely delivers. It’s full of quiet depictions of quiet scenes with long, dreamy sentences that flow pristinely, punctuated and punctured by devastating bursts of interiority, like when the younger Ladivine thinks of her own family: “Oh, she loved them all, but not without torment.” Family is a duty and a prison, a role to play, a role they are forced into. Even spousal sex is “no particular pleasure, but no disgust either.”
Also skillful is NDiaye’s awareness of when the claustrophobic nature of each character verges on too much for the reader to handle. Each main character is disturbingly solipsistic, unable to imagine that the people around them have as much complexity as they do, but just when their solipsism and turmoil becomes too much to bear, the novel opens up, using departures from reality that are simultaneously surprising and sensible. After we are introduced to Ladivine’s world through the eyes of Clarisse/Malinka, her shame starts to become unbearable and tedious. But then a new romance appears, one that offers an escape for both Clarisse and the reader:
She looked at his pallid, droop-cornered eyes, his mottled, pock-marked face, his coarse yellow hair, like a patch of grass burned by pesticide; she looked at him and thought to herself that it wasn’t easy to love and want to touch such a damaged face, she told herself that, and at the same time she knew she would manage, without forcing or feigning it, not out of generosity or kindness but because the time would come when she’d want to, unstoppably, once she’d learned how to know him, Freddy Moliger, in all his strangeness.
Then she would want to caress and protect his poor face.
Race is just under the surface here. The elder Ladivine is described as black, but otherwise racial markers are largely absent. It’s clear, though, that the main characters are on the edge of French society. Later, the younger Ladivine’s family vacations to an unnamed African country—quite the ordeal for the control-obsessed couple—and the mixture of fear, longing for acceptance, and internal conflict they experience seems to serve as subtle, larger commentary. The avoidance of race does feel a little forced and unnatural in sections (especially as there’s a good amount of commentary on French society and the younger Ladivine’s spouse’s Germanness), but those moments pass quickly.
Ladivine is hard to get a handle on. Just when you think you understand a character, you’re ripped from their perspective and put inside the head of another. This format matches the book’s content, in which the interiority of the characters poisons their lives and the lives of those around them. The narrative follows this contagious mental disease. It’s full of abrupt surprises that make complete sense afterward, not unlike a dream, in which the line between internal and external is blurred, where cause and effect are confused, and whatever happens fits seamlessly even if it’s unclear why.