Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships. In particular, NDiaye conveys a powerful message about the unconscious vulnerabilities that cause women to undermine healthy relationships with each other, and in doing so she solidifies her place as a unique voice in feminist literature.

The story’s unnamed narrator, a female French novelist of West African heritage, is based on Marie NDiaye. “Marie” perceives that certain females in her life are “women in green”—disorienting, elusive, unpredictable, and destructive. Among these are her mother, her former schoolteacher, and certain friends and acquaintances. Sometimes the women are, literally, green—they wear green clothes, hide behind trees or have green eyes. With others, the visual association is unnecessary—they are “green” simply because of the negative feelings that they evoke in Marie.

Marie’s voice is wonderfully unsettling and original. Her disturbed state of mind is apparent from the very first pages. Her anxieties override rational thought and, in this confused state of mind, the women in her life bear the brunt of her insecurities. NDiaye’s use of the color green as an instrument to visualize Marie’s vilification of women is smart and effective. She relates how the tendency to demonize other women erodes Marie’s own self-worth and cripples her other relationships, namely with her father and siblings.

Marie is the most unreliable of narrators, and NDiaye employs her own brand of magic realism to describe Marie’s reality, a style that she also uses in the first novella of her later book, Three Strong Women. In both works the female protagonists exist in hyper-sensory states, and their heightened senses create emotional reflexes that, without exception, are negative and cause harm. Both novellas also demonstrate NDiaye’s clever use of symbolism, which provides additional dimension and depth to her prose.

In the final pages of the book Marie becomes convinced that it is her destiny to become a woman in green—the personification of her fears and insecurities. She succumbs to the inertia of remaining in the destructive cycle that her mind has created, incapable of the necessary self-reflection to acknowledge that the evil that she sees in others is merely a misapplication of her own weaknesses.

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Self-Portrait in Green
By Marie NDiaye
Translated by Jordan Stump
Reviewed by Lori Feathers
164 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781931883399
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