My Heart Hemmed In
(Two Lines Press, 2017)
Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In begins with a mysterious injury. Nadia and her husband Ange are walking home from school, where both are teachers, when they come across an aggressive man with lips blue from anger and cold. It’s not until the couple gets home that Nadia realizes the hole above her husband’s liver.
An unassuming teacher in Bordeaux, France is attacked for no apparent reason. We don’t see the assault, nor do we get a true sense of why the assault took place. The moment resembles that of the severed ear in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) in how it mixes the mundane and the violent. Just as the presence of a severed ear taps into a sense of psychological horror, the injury to Ange immediately creates an unsettling feeling about this fictional world and its characters. NDiaye pushes this even further with a range of elements that disorient the reader’s perception of this world. We experience the characters and setting through her limited narrative scope, which has a nearsighted effect that coats everything in a subjective fog. The reader gets bits and pieces but never the whole, creating a palpable tension that drives the story forward and injects it with darkness and mystery.
As the story continues, the reader gains insight that Nadia and Ange have either fallen from grace within their community or that they distrust their community. Either way, the alienation is real. For example, Ange refuses to go to the hospital despite desperately needing medical attention. When Nadia goes to the pharmacist for a box of compresses, the attendant sympathizes with her and reaffirms Ange’s fear of the hospitals. “I shouldn’t be helping you, but I am anyways,” the attendant tells Nadia. But why? Why shouldn’t the pharmacist help? The uncertainty in these answers creates a sorrowful irritation. The attendant’s words create an electric charge between Nadia and her world.
The story contains a second plot line that centers on Nadia and her son Ralph, who has moved away from Bordeaux and is keeping Souhar, his newborn daughter, from Nadia. Again, there is a significant tension that exists between mother and son, but the exact nature of this tension remains unstated. Certainly, Nadia’s divorce to Ralph’s father plays a part of this tension, which is dramatized during their meeting:
With one hand I push my glasses back on, with the other I touch my son’s thigh. He leaps back. “Ralph, it’s me,” I say, standing up all the way. But when I do my son’s beauty grabs me by the throat. Gasping, I put one hand to my chest. He was a very appealing young man before, but in a slightly slovenly, almost moony way [....] Frowning, he peers at me. He’s taken off his glasses to examine me more minutely. A shy, surprised smile bares his teeth. “Mama? Is that you?” “You don’t recognize me?” I say, feigning levity (205–6).
NDaiye builds on the theme of alienation by extending it to the familial. This interaction strengthens the reader’s sense that Nadia is an unreliable narrator who is losing her sense of objectivity, but also that she is experiencing a physical metamorphosis of sorts—so much so that her own son doesn’t recognize her.
Often, one praises fiction writers for their use of concrete details and precise language. But this text is a master class in how abstraction can be used to portray an unreliable yet sympathetic narrator. This goes back to the first words of the book, which opens with Nadia wondering why people scowl at her. Ange responds that he feels the same way when his students look at him and questions whether they have some grievance against him. The question “What could I have done, and to whom?” haunts this book. The reader doesn’t get detailed or precise answers, resulting in reality itself becoming mysterious and abstract.
The subjective experiences of Nadia tap into something profound. This book forces the reader into an unknown realm of constant distress. It begins with the fear of being attacked by strangers on the street before invading her home. Nowhere is this more present than in the mysterious figure of Richard Victor Noget, a neighbor and supposedly celebrated author, who constantly shows up with fatty foods for both Nadia and Ange. While he seems like a caring neighbor, Nadia violently reacts against him. His surface-level pleasantries seem to be hiding something hideous. The oscillation between Noget’s kindness and cruelty puts her in constant distress. And with his access to her home, she is constantly on edge. Worst of all, Noget’s presence in her home leaves her without sanctuary. There is no momentary respite or sense of safety. It’s not just that the world is dangerous, it’s that her home has been infiltrated by someone she doesn’t trust. Alienation, fear, and mistrust transform Nadia.
This loss of home forms a connection between the protagonist and author. In 2009, NDiaye said in an interview with Les Inrockuptibles that France had become monstrous as a result of members of the Union for a Popular Movement, a center-right political party associated with figures like Nicolas Sarkozy and Brice Hortefeux—both mentioned by name in the interview. As a result of extremism and violence, a certain right-wing ideology in France challenged the country’s notion of tolerance and diversity. NDiaye’s father is Senegalese and mother is French. As stated in the interview, she grew up in a French universe that celebrated the notion of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” But the rise of extremism and racism has challenged this universe.
This book succeeds in allowing the reader to experience intolerance. Race isn’t directly discussed, but the alienation of racism is felt throughout. The reader isn’t bludgeoned with political discourse or facts. NDiaye has consciously removed almost all conversation of race. Instead, the reader experiences racism for what it is—physically threatening, psychologically damaging, and completely alienating.
JACOB SINGER's reviews and interviews have appeared in Rain Taxi, Quarterly Conversation, and American Book Review. He can be found @jacobcsinger