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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Heart Hemmed In

Marie NDiaye

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To purchase My Heart Hemmed In

Title: My Heart Hemmed In
Author: Marie NDiaye
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 279 pages
Original in: French
Availability: My Heart Hemmed In - US
My Heart Hemmed In - UK
My Heart Hemmed In - Canada
Mon cœur à l'étroit - Canada
Mon cœur à l'étroit - France
Mein Herz in der Enge - Deutschland
Una stretta al cuore - Italia
  • French title: Mon cœur à l'étroit
  • Translated by Jordan Stump

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effectively unsettled story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 23/2/2009 Niklas Bender
Harper's . 7/2017 Christine Smallwood
NZZ A 7/4/2009 Georg Renöckl

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mit einem Stupser lässt es den Leser vornüber in eine rabenschwarze Szenerie kippen. (...) Atemlos und beklommen folgt der Leser der Gehetzten auf ihren Irrwegen durch neblige Straßen, in denen grell beleuchtete Straßenbahnen geisterhaft hin und her schießen. Die Stadt selbst, das hochmütig-bürgerliche Bordeaux, hat es auf Nadia abgesehen (.....) In dieser Art, soziale Wirklichkeit poetisch zu pointieren, ruhen der Zauber und die dringende Aktualität von Mein Herz in der Enge." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "My Heart Hemmed In has the psychological depth of a case study and the sensory texture of a hallucination. It relies on the unsaid -- we never know exactly what Nadia’s ethnicity is, or what caused public opinion to turn against people like her." - Christine Smallwood, Harper's

  • "In Mein Herz in der Enge gelingen etwa die Schilderungen von Gerüchen oder Angstzuständen so eindrücklich, dass sie das Leseerlebnis zu einer beklemmend körperlichen Erfahrung machen. Geschickt verknüpft Marie NDiaye in ihrem neuen Roman das durchaus realistische (Fehl-)Verhalten einer rücksichtslosen Aufsteigerin mit metaphysischem Grauen. (...) Und nicht einmal das erstaunlich milde Ende des Horrortrips will man kritisieren – beschert es doch nicht nur Nadia endlich ein «besänftigtes Herz», sondern auch den ziemlich gebeutelten Lesern dieses unheimlich guten Romans." - Georg Renöckl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       My Heart Hemmed In is narrated by Nadia. For fifteen years she has been teaching at the same school in Bordeaux, as has her second husband, Ange; it is his second marriage, too. They seem a typical bourgeois couple, comfortable in a small, carefully circumscribed world -- perhaps a bit too small:

     "No," I say. "Ange and I don't read the paper. We do listen to the radio, but only the music stations, jazz and classical."
     "Which is why you don't know anything about anything or anyone," says Noget reproachfully.
     "Our society is too well informed as it is," I say.
       Yet in keeping so much of the world at bay, and shutting their ears to it, Nadia and Ange find that the world seems to have turned against them. They can imagine no specific transgression -- "What can I have done, and to whom ?" Nadia wonders -- but the hostility around them is unmistakable, and soon overwhelming, palpable everywhere they turn.
       NDiaye conveys this feeling, and this situation, straight out of Kafka, very well. No one comes out and states or explains what seems obvious to everyone, while Nadia remains completely baffled. For much of the novel, Bordeaux is shrouded in fog, and she literally stumbles around, getting lost in the familiar city -- to the extent that it seems even the city has turned on them. Even physically, nothing is as, or where, it seems, leaving Nadia flailing.
       And Nadia admits:
     We're convinced of our innocence, but ashamed all the same.
       Some of their issues do become clear. The couple is not good with human connections, for one. Nadia is estranged from her son from her first marriage, and disavowed her parents -- "I never told him my parents were dead, I simply never said they existed" -- and they don't seem to socialize much:
"Ange and I have always gotten along very nicely without friends. You can take my word for it. And to be perfectly frank, the fact is we find friends a nuisance, since you ask."
       Right at the start, when it has dawned on them that they are pariahs, Ange returns home wounded, with: "a blood-soaked hole more or less over his liver". They dare not seek professional medical help, and the wound festers on, Ange bed-ridden. A man, Monsieur Noget, insinuates himself in their lives, seeming to tend to Ange and fattening Nadia up with his rich cooking; typically, everyone is familiar with Noget -- an apparently renowned author -- except Nadia, who thinks him just a nuisance (that she can't get rid of).
       Nadia tries to venture to see her son -- which means leaving Ange behind -- but it takes her considerable time until she can make the break from Bordeaux. Not that getting to her son -- or what she encounters there -- is that much more reassuring. Indeed, exploring further only eventually leads her to confront what she has spent thirty-five years doing everything she could to avoid. And she also has her own disturbing physical transformation -- fattened by Monsieur Noget ? menopause ? pregnancy ? -- to deal with.
       Nadia does wonder: "How much of all this is real?" and NDiaye nicely balances a feel of the unreal with the all too real. There are absurdist elements to My Heart Hemmed In, with the evasiveness of everyone about what Nadia and Ange's transgressions might have been going to rather unlikely extremes, but generally it is very effective.
       My Heart Hemmed In is a kind of horror story -- the unseen underlying horror only sensed, but that deeply and throughout. It is a very unsettling story, and effectively done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 August 2017

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My Heart Hemmed In: Reviews: Other books by Marie NDiaye under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Marie NDiaye was born in 1967.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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