My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye

My Heart Hemmed In BY Marie NDiaye. Two Lines Press. Paperback, 296 pages. $14.
The cover of My Heart Hemmed In

The novels of acclaimed French writer Marie NDiaye are set in familiar spaces: domestic worlds, often within cities. Her protagonists are usually determined, upwardly mobile women in pursuit of stability. But NDiaye’s stories also press against the boundaries of realism. If, in the nineteenth-century realist novel, family and origin provide clues about the self, here, they show the point at which the self can unravel. The strangeness, pain, and horror of relationships are indexed by odd, fantastic events in NDiaye’s otherwise lifelike storylines. In her 2016 novel Ladivine, for instance, a family arrives at an unnamed tropical country for a vacation, only to find that clothing from their lost luggage is being worn by locals and is for sale on the streets, along with some of their clothes they hadn’t even packed.

My Heart Hemmed In, the latest novel by NDiaye to be translated into English, works the other way around. Rather than inject surreal elements into a realist narrative, My Heart Hemmed In starts with the fantastic in order to gesture toward—while never explicitly inspecting—social truths. The novel transposes the racial, ethnic, and class-based divisions of modern French society into the register of myth, where specific, contingent exclusions are experienced as universal and mysterious laws. NDiaye’s characters strive to control these forces but continue to be confined by them.

Nadia and Ange Lacordeyre, two dutiful middle-aged teachers in Bordeaux—each in their second marriage—have begun to sense a vague but powerful antipathy towards them from their colleagues, students, and neighbors. When Ange comes home with an unexplained gaping wound, the couple’s elderly neighbor, Richard Noget—a writer esteemed by most of the other characters, though Nadia and Ange have always treated him with derision—steps in, uninvited, to take care of him. Doctors, Nadia is warned, can no longer be trusted to minister fairly to “people like you.”

What have they done to deserve such treatment? Nadia, whose confessional first-person voice turns out to elide more than it reveals, is initially bewildered. She paces the streets of the city, which seems to want to repel her as well: A fog descends, avenues lengthen and change shape, and the Bordeaux where she was born becomes intermittently unrecognizable. Jordan Stump, who has translated a few of NDiaye’s other novels, has mastered her matter-of-fact, elegant, anxiety-draped idiom. At one point, a city tram refuses to stop for Nadia: “silent and almost invisible in the dull-white mist. The tinkle of its bell sounds as if the now almost palpable air had snatched it up and clutched it tight, leaving only a little choked rattle.” Here, Nadia’s dread has transformed the setting into an another ominous character, one who, like her colleagues and friends, wants to expel her.

But My Heart Hemmed In also supplements dread with a more visceral, immediate feeling of disgust. Nadia has long seen the world through this filter. She notes with “distaste” Noget’s “fat, flabby hands, his dirty nails”; she responds with revulsion—though at times mixed with pleasure—to food that she’s offered over the course of the book. Now, as she becomes increasingly alienated, Nadia realizes that other people are turning away from her. She swells up, gaining more and more weight, and eventually discovers that an eel-like “demonic” creature is growing inside her. Nadia’s disgust had been a way to distinguish herself from others, but now the reaction is used against her: the people around her “[recoil] in disgust from people like me.” We never learn Nadia’s ethnicity, to which the oft-repeated phrase “people like me” seems to refer. Her vagueness underlines how she has tried to preempt specific prejudices by forging her own hierarchies and creating different categories. Until now, Nadia has seemed to manage this rearrangement successfully: Her sudden outsider status, the novel suggests, shows how futile the attempt to rewrite the laws of racism and exclusion on a personal basis can be—even while the moral cost of the attempt is grimly high.

Indeed, Nadia thinks she has succeeded in cutting all ties from her past, including her childhood spent in Les Aubiers, the projects on the outskirts of Bordeaux, before she clawed her way into the bourgeois “heart” of the city. In her peregrinations through Bordeaux, Nadia encounters her ex-husband and their son Ralph’s ex-boyfriend Lanton, a police officer and, according to her, “a finer young man than my son in many ways.” Nadia left her husband for Ange out of disdain for their shared origins; she told Ange that her parents, apparently immigrants, were dead. Like Ladivine’s Malinka, who renames herself Clarisse and hides the existence of her mother, Nadia’s shame is socially and racially based: She is enraged about the name, Souhar, Ralph has chosen for his daughter, a name (of North African origin) that, she seethes, “has perpetuated the indignity of our bloodline.”

It takes another kind of displacement for Nadia to recognize that her mask of wealth and status can easily be snatched off. She travels to an unnamed island, where Ralph has taken up residence with a gluttonous carnivore named Wilma, and where he has, unbeknownst to her, fetched her parents to live close by and take care of Souhar. There, coming across a school and looking into the “brown, deep faces” of the schoolteachers, Nadia suddenly admits that she’s “one of them.”

NDiaye’s characters often move between wealthy urban centers and poorer, warmer places—they go to former colonies that are now vacation destinations. Her own father is Senegalese and abandoned the family when she was a baby. She never went to Africa herself until adulthood and—in a country whose bookstores still divide novels into “French” and “Francophone” categories—has had to insist that she may be black but is not an “African writer.” “I don’t write as a woman, nor as a black woman . . . I write as a human being,” she has said in an interview. NDiaye’s claim of universalism is in part an expression of frustration, perhaps signaling an impatience at being “hemmed in.” In the novel, what Nadia sees as her own bottomless—even monstrous—individuality finds itself senselessly obstructed by categories that make far more sense to others than to herself. The feeling of pervasive senselessness throughout My Heart Hemmed In might also be described as a feeling of the uncanny, a mode that, as Freud argued, relies both on what is familiar and what is kept repressed. This mode turns specific political histories into universal psychological experience. At the same time, the novel acknowledges that to “write as a human being” also means to live with an appendage of adjectives, some self-claimed and some imposed by others. The various adjectives affixed to the “heart” of the title in various parts of the novel—“purulous,” “gleeful,” “terrified,” “aging,” “unformed”—pay tribute to this specificity.

Nadia’s sojourn with her parents and other “people like her” is experienced as a homecoming and an exile, a relief and a failure. She hasn’t chosen this community—it’s been forced onto her—so any sense of belonging she feels is ambivalent. If My Heart Hemmed In is not quite an allegory for social exclusion, this is in large part due to its fantastic elements, which resist being massaged into any one meaning, lingering instead as a stubborn remainder. They offer an alternative for probing the felt experience of an exclusionary world, suggesting one way for the novel to evolve if it wants to record the particular kinds of estrangement we face today.

Victoria Baena is a writer and PhD candidate in comparative literature based in New Haven, Connecticut.