Monday, January 25, 2010

A look at Maryse Condé, Victoire: My Mother's Mother

When I was in undergrad, one of my favorite courses in my major dealt with Francophone literature. It was taught by the department chair, a Frenchwoman born in Algeria. The class opened up a new world of reading for me, to see how different peoples around the globe transformed the same written language to fit the patterns and perspectives of their culture, and how they created a unique literature using the tongue of their land's former colonizers.

Our class read widely, but of course it was impossible to cover everything. Although I'd known about the work of Maryse Condé before now, particularly her novel of the Salem witch trials (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), I approached her latest novel as a brand new reader. I discovered mention of Victoire: My Mother's Mother while browsing through Atria's spring catalog a while back and ordered it via Amazon last week, as soon as it went on sale.

As Condé writes in her first sentence, she never knew her maternal grandmother, who died long before she was born. In an attempt to uncover the essence of her life and personality, the author conducted extensive research, visiting relevant sites and interviewing those who remembered her. Victoire is an unusual sort of book for those used to a more standard form of historical novel. It tells the story of the title character from birth through death, and alongside this tale, Condé's own research journey unfolds. These first-person digressions meld nicely into the fictional framework, enhancing the overall experience and revealing its importance to both the teller and the reader.

Victoire Elodie Quidal is born in the 1870s on the island of Marie-Galante, part of the archipelago of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. Her fourteen-year-old mother dies in childbirth; her father, an unknown white man, could have been a soldier and maybe never knew of her existence. Victoire's life is complicated by her poverty, illiteracy, and a skin tone of "Australian whiteness" in an extremely color-conscious land that finds uneducated "mulattos" a perplexing embarrassment.

To the author, one of the most puzzling parts of Victoire's life was her decision to leave her mother's family and go into service, working as a cook for a family of white Creoles. Blending known family history, discovered facts, and imaginative insight into Victoire's actions and choices,
Condé pieces together the biography of a proud, enigmatic woman torn between many different obligations. She concludes that Victoire found an outlet for her creative spirit through her delicious culinary creations (the menus she prepares are mouth-watering!), just as her granddaughter does through her writing.

I haven't read the French version, though can easily see how translating such a book would be a challenging exercise.
Condé's style is very readable and direct, yet poetic in places, and spiced throughout with words and songs from the Creole patois her heroine spoke. (Victoire's inability to speak French was another source of embarrassment to her daughter, a highly educated black militant who married one of Guadeloupe's Grands Nègres -- a member of the rising black bourgeoisie.) Communicating all the nuances of a multilingual culture into English adds another layer of complexity, but the result felt very natural to my ear. I phrase it this way because you can easily imagine the novel read aloud, a fascinating story told by a fluent storyteller. And although this is a very personal family story, the approach is honest and unsentimental, not hesitating to affix blame and responsibility in Condé's search for the truth.

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is its ability to situate me in a distant time and place. Even though late 19th/early 20th-century Guadeloupe isn't as geographically distant as some other places commonly encountered in novels, its history and culture will be unfamiliar to many. The book is deceptively slim, rich in content and emotion for its barely 200 pages.

Well, I sat down to write a short piece about the novel and see many paragraphs have passed, as usual, so I'll stop here! I highly recommend it, though, for any readers interested in Caribbean culture, mother-daughter relationships, or simply something different than the usual offerings in the genre.

Victoire: My Mother's Mother was published by Atria International (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in January at $19.99/$27.00 Canadian. You can get it on Amazon for $13ish, the same price as a trade paperback. The expert translation is by the author's longtime English translator and husband, Richard Philcox.


  1. Wonderful review! I might have to get this one :)

  2. Great review! I may have to try picking this up in French--it's been a couple years since I read a French novel, but this sounds like it would have fit in wonderfully with all the "ecriture feminine" that I read in college :)

  3. It's somewhat longer than that since I've read a novel in French - that would be an interesting challenge! After finishing this one I'm tempted to read more by this author, especially given her tendency towards historical topics.