If you, like me, are looking forward to this year’s Women in Translation Month and anticipating all the new books and writers to discover, making lists of translated works by women to be ready for August, this Self Portrait in Green review is for you.
Available from Influx Press and translated by Jordon Stump, Marie Ndiaye’s story begins with the expected flooding of the Garonne River and its effects on the place where the narrator lives. Remembering back to a year earlier, as she drove around dropping off and picking up her children, when she began to see – or feel – the presence of a series of green women, ‘unnamable, though not absolutely malign.’ There is possibly some kind of animal on the loose in the town as well and this, plus an unsettling conversation with a women she does not recognise, lead her to seek out the green women. She contrasts them with the young women around her in summer shorts and sandals, and other women she knows.
I’ll see her again, we’ll almost be friends. I know she’ll be replaced one day by another green woman, whom I won’t have chosen either.
The unsettling aspects of the approaching flood, the jump between timelines from when her children are grown to before they were born, the appearance and reappearance of the colour green and the green women themselves, make the story flow like a dream. It is one that reveals something of the relationships between the people she encounters, whether that is women with men, parents with children or the fluid, sometimes judgmental, nature of friendships between women. These encounters are disturbing or jarring at times, is she being honest or she is unsure of what is happening? There are feelings of frustration too, of trying to present an image to the world, depression and suicide, but death does not seem to be final for the green women. They stay in her memories, recalled as she moves from place to place.
Her mother and two of her sisters live further away and when they get in touch again after a while she cannot deal with it, except by burying their postcard in the neighbour’s chicken run, before digging it up to memorise the details and then burying it deeper again. An extremely introverted way of being out of contact with people… Seeing her mother again reveals that she too is now a green woman, the meeting between them leaving the narrator feeling more disconnected than ever. More than once she deals with uncomfortable feelings by resolving to never see people again, sometimes going back on that promise to herself.
Her father is a ladies man, with many children and a few different marriages, the latest to a woman she once knew as a childhood friend. Visits to them in Paris reveal the disjoint between their time as friends and how they are now. For all that the green women haunt her, with their lives and deaths playing out around her, she and some of the other green women also revolve around her father, with marriage, parenthood and step-parenthood all being examined.
I then wonder, in my sisters’ tidy kitchen, how to find bearable a life without women in green exhibiting their slippery silhouettes in the background. In order to slip serenely through these moments of stupor, of deep boredom, of crippling inertia, I need to remember they decorate my thoughts, my invisible life, I need to remember they’re there, at once real beings and literary figures, without which, it seems to me, the harshness of existence scours skin and flesh down to the bone.
Self Portrait in Green is a short read, but it is vivid and the images and themes will stay with me, like on waking up from a half-remembered dream. I hope to read more from Marie Ndiaye very soon… perhaps this August!
You can order a copy of Self Portrait in Green via your local UK independent bookshop by using the Bookshop website. I may receive a small commission if you do – thanks!