Self-Portrait in Green has only been out since November, yet it’s making top-tier Flavorwire lists and receiving excellent raves by Shakespeare & Co, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and other media! The highly-esteemed author, Marie Ndiaye, was the winner of France’s most prestigious literature award, the Prix Goncourt, and a finalist for the 2013 Man Book International Prize.
Here is a small book that can be read in an evening. It’s a book that, once read, leaves you wondering what to think about it, but knowing at the least that you had a thought-provoking evening…. But the ensuing questions about what’s real and what’s metaphorical actually prove more intriguing than frustrating. Likely, this reaction is due to Ndiaye’s distinctive voice, gently rocking a reader through portraits that are hardly soothing.The result is a strange, strong series of stories.
Self-Portrait in Green is a book to be read on the move, in a bus, on a train, etc., where the reader’s own sense of direction and certainty is disrupted. This is because disorientation dominates NDiaye’s book; cases of misidentification, misappropriation, and misremembering abound. The result of this experimental literary technique could have been confusing, almost suffocating. Yet, NDiaye’s narrative unrolls effortlessly. This fluidity is due in part to the translator’s seasoned pen (ahem keyboard)…. Stump translates NDiaye’s weaving, ambiguous phrasing—so prevalent in French—into a clear English, though not one robbed of its strangeness. The book’s many temporal transitions in particular are seamless, the word choices notable. For a book filled to the brim with physical descriptions of the women in green, there is scant repetition; each portrait is vivid without relying on cliché.
What if you met your friend and didn’t recognise her, then saw her across the street and realised you’d been talking to a stranger? What happens when your sisters, your mother, your children act entirely unexpectedly? How do they become incarnations of the mysterious “women in green”? Man International Booker Prize nominee Marie NDiaye’s Self Portrait in Green is an affecting, novelistic memoir built from short stories that deal with close relations: how much can we ever know of those nearest to us, and can we know ourselves, and our own motives, any better?
This book skirts the line between a collection of short fiction, memoir, and novel, but I think it’s best understood as a set of scenes, variations on the theme of the “green lady”—an invention of NDiaye’s—that wades through feminine fear, power, and insecurity like no other book I’ve encountered.