I’m honestly not sure where to start with Jordan Stump’s recent English translation of French writer Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, because it feels like I’ve been preparing to read this book for a long time, a long time before I knew of its existence and perhaps even before it was published in its original French (Mon coeur à l’étroit) in 2007.
In other words, this book could inspire a huge round of geeking out about a number of things I have and haven’t read, but I’ll try to only take a brief detour through the rest of the literary world before actually talking about NDiaye’s novel itself.
My Heart Hemmed In has many characteristics, both stylistic and plot-based, that feel familiar. It combines suspense with issues of guilt, assumed guilt and preconceptions involving identity, making it reminiscent—to take examples recently featured on this blog—of novels by Percival Everett and Hye-young Pyun, among others. It portrays class values and struggles with elements of horror. There’s a nearly inevitable comparison to be made to Kafka’s The Trial. And yet there’s something else here that I can’t quite define, something fresh, unrelenting and, despite the novel’s sinister atmosphere, almost joyful.
My Heart Hemmed In follows a woman named Nadia, a teacher living in Bordeaux, who comes to understand that she and her husband, Ange, are being shunned by others in their community. Shortly thereafter, Ange acquires a mysterious wound that soon has him bedridden. How he’s been wounded isn’t clear, but everyone Nadia turns to for help—including Ange’s daughters, a woman who works at a local pharmacy and an imposing neighbor—seems to assume an implicit understanding of the dark situation in which Nadia and her husband have found themselves. Nadia begins to feel self-conscious about her ignorance, and hesitates to ask questions concerning what exactly is happening to her and Ange. When she does ask, she’s met with ambiguous, ominous responses.
Early on, Nadia suspects that none of it is real, that is, that either others are only pretending to understand what’s happening or that she’s imagining that anything is wrong, but the general consensus seems to be that she has either committed some careless error or is just a particular hated type of individual—that perhaps she and Ange are guilty of some joint sin, but that she especially is at fault. Taking Ange to the hospital is out of the question, it appears, as the doctors are likely not to help him but to further harm and probably even kill him. Outnumbered and compromised by her own confusion, Nadia is pushed into letting the nosy neighbor, Monsieur Noget, care for Ange as she decides what her next move should be.
From the beginning, Nadia’s first person narration is on the strange side. Her voice has the breathless, naive quality of someone who wants desperately to convince others that she’s a good, upstanding person but whose moral compass is quite simplistic and delicate. In addition to this, certain passages are set off in italics, as if to reveal a deeper level of emotion or expression. Chapter titles like “We don’t need any friends, thanks” and “Did we offend the bad fairy?” seem to either highlight Nadia’s personal, occasionally childlike assessment of circumstances, emit a sardonic humor, or both.
As Nadia finds out more about the nature of her situation, we find out more about her character that seems questionable. The first red flag is her fervent dislike for Monsieur Noget. To be fair, we first see this dislike in the context of her resenting the man’s pity towards her and Ange, which is at least understandable. Besides, it’s not hard to share her feeling that there’s something unsettling about Noget. However, Nadia recalls that she and her husband have always felt superior to Noget, as well as any of their other neighbors who are retired or otherwise unemployed, ostensibly because they love their work so much that they can’t imagine anyone choosing not to work. She further refuses to believe that Noget is a former teacher, as he claims to be, calling him an imposter. Regardless of the reasons behind this belief, she seems set on the view that he doesn’t fit her idea of what a teacher should be.
We eventually learn that Nadia has a son named Ralph, by an ex-husband who she left for Ange. Ralph once had a male lover named Lanton, and Nadia may have tainted their relationship by doting on Lanton more than her own son. Ralph now has a daughter named Souhar, apparently with a woman named Yasmine who Nadia has never met. Nadia’s ex-husband seems to have disapproved of his son’s homosexuality, and Nadia, for her part, expresses an antipathy towards the name “Souhar” on multiple occasions, though it’s not immediately clear what the basis of this antipathy is. All these familial circumstances lie in the shadow of Nadia’s upbringing in Les Aubiers, a neighborhood she remembers for its public housing and unsophisticated inhabitants, and it becomes apparent that she looks down on the place, never returning for visits or even communicating with her parents, who she believes still live there.
Nadia’s sense of herself appears to revolve around particular attributes she believes she shares with Ange: On the one hand, an insistence on a certain level of quality regarding things like interior decoration, on the other, a certain pride in restraint and in a lack of materialism. She seems to have in mind a very specific balance of values that she believes represents refinement and sidesteps vulgarity.
Ange’s infirmity may make her aware of an encroaching lack of control over this balance, as well as over her life and existence in general. She’s gained more weight than she would prefer in recent history, and Monsieur Noget—who to Nadia’s profound annoyance has turned out to be some kind of famous writer everyone else knows about—makes matters worse by offering not only to care for Ange in his current state, but to become the household cook. Noget takes pains to assure Nadia of the quality of his cuisine: He gets meat from a cousin who raises animals in the Périgord on a “top-grade farm,” he bakes his own bread, he makes his croque-monsieurs with the best Comté… Nadia finds herself unable to resist his rich, fatty meals, even as she comes to believe his food is causing her to gain weight at an unnatural rate.
As it becomes clear that there isn’t much she can do for Ange and that even he seems to be less than thrilled with her presence, Nadia decides to give in to mounting pressure and go to stay with her son for a while. As she prepares for and embarks on the trip, she encounters several strange obstacles, which, like her belief that she’s put on a substantial amount of weight in a matter of days, have a supernatural tinge to them: She nearly gets lost in the city she grew up in, runs into her ex-husband, and seems to develop the superpower of stopping and repelling public transport.
Xenophobia lurks around every corner of My Heart Hemmed In, yet we’re not given a firm enough handle on Nadia’s background to be able to understand exactly what’s happening to her in terms of identity politics. (This is apparently a regular feature of NDiaye’s work and something commented on by the translator.) Names, places and physical appearances seem to have purposely been arranged in a kind of vague soup in order to disable the social-ethnic-racial connections our brains are programmed to make. The story exists in the eerie negative space created by hate and cultivated resentment, whether it’s Nadia’s resentment or someone else’s. It may be clear enough that Nadia isn’t a nice person in many ways, including being a class snob, but we’re not allowed to simply explain her behavior with a label and be done with it.
The fact that we know less than we might feel entitled to, as readers, adds to the frightening quality of the story. But why should this omission make the story more frightening? A nourished sense of superiority, a pruned and landscaped disgust for other human beings—why should these things be additionally unnerving when presented without the usual justifications attached to skin color or family background?
One possible answer is that while in real life, those justifications stand in for the reality of the oppressors in a society, they also replace a reality for the oppressed; both parties know the what and why of hate are something deeper, more monstrous and dangerous, but public depictions of prejudice often involve ridiculous, cardboard versions of it. In My Heart Hemmed In, the cardboard is torn away, and hate and fear, as well as shame and bargaining, take on broader dimensions that seem fantastical but may in fact be closer to the emotional reality that takes place when someone is not entirely welcome in the cultural space they inhabit.
My Heart Hemmed In continues to produce a more or less cohesive plot while at times seeming to lead us no closer to any discernible conclusion. It’s hard not to wonder, especially considering the cheeky chapter titles, if NDiaye is simply having fun with us, feeding us lavish but cumbersome sentences—like Nogat pushing his ossobuco and croque-monsieurs on Nadia—only to ultimately weigh us down with fatty reserves of surrealism and doubt.
Fortunately, My Heart Hemmed In isn’t harsh or teasing for the sake of it. For a book at times so relentlessly cruel, it’s strangely compassionate and, at times, quite funny. Despite its teasing, its false starts and vagaries, it fully intends to take us somewhere, and its final pages make strides towards something resembling a completed story arc, however unsure that completion may leave us feeling. NDiaye’s book is a social horror novel if ever there was one, but it doesn’t offer a clear message that can be easily translated back into the real world. Instead, it defines its own terms. It creates its own language, and fortunately, because a unique form of expression seems to be the only way out of its tangled grasp. It’s frightening, like a narrow, foggy labyrinth, but it’s also warm and insistent, like a new life.