My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press
Reviewed by Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor
Think: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper meets Han Kang’s The Vegetarian meets Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; then for good measure, throw in a bit of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In defies categorization. And yet, the novel’s crux lies in the unspoken categorization of its main characters—the schoolteacher couple, Nadia and Ange—who the townspeople have inexplicably (and violently) turned against. Not long after the reader arrives in this novel, Ange sustains a critical injury and Nadia must find a way to live in this new, hostile world. Told entirely from Nadia’s limited perspective, this forced intimacy between reader and paranoid narrator leaves us feeling curious, suffocated, and unsettled.
French literary star, NDiaye, has been my writer crush ever since Ladivine, which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. She published her first novel when she was just eighteen years old and has since received the Prix Femina and the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Written in NDiaye’s distinctive, phantasmagorical style, My Heart Hemmed In is an unrelenting look inward in a world where the psychological manifests itself externally. Whether it’s the food Nadia devours or Ange’s mysterious, gaping wound, we are confronted with things that are consumed and the things they are consumed by; the things left for dead, and the things they birth. NDiaye’s details are so seductive and unforgiving, lavish and grotesque, it leaves you reeling.
Let me talk about selfies.
Are you annoyed yet? I promise this isn’t a curmudgeonly thinkpiece about millennials; nor is it a listicle written by said millennials in defense of the selfie.* No, I’d like to talk about self-portraiture, which became conceivable as soon as mirrors and other reflective surfaces were available. (Narcissus may have enjoyed his reflection in antiquity, but he wasn’t real, and pools of water are never that smooth). The idea here is objectivity. A stable you that you can see.
Even without gadgetry (mirrors, glassy ponds, cameras et al)—I don’t think a selfie is a foray into solipsism. More the opposite: the way the self-it-self has been constructed is a result of the litany of selves surrounding it. We adjust to resemble, even when affirming our individual self-ness. Every selfie (can we say “self-portrait” now? I’m sorry!) exists as an algorithmic product of the selves around it, which, through refraction and contortion, inform whatever “self” is portrait-ed. This is true even sans Instagram.
This, at least, is my hypothesis after reading Two Lines Press’ 2014 publication, Self Portrait in Green, by French writer Marie NDiaye and meticulously translated by Jordan Stump. The slender novella is written in the first person against the stark relief of an ominous threat, one of a flood that is slated to destroy the village the narrator inhabits, by 2003. Through a series of recollections, Self Portrait in Green navigates a universe of threat, both environmental and interpersonal, through an interconnected series of engagements the narrator litanies against women afflicted by the color green. READ MORE…