The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Conde (translated from the French by Richard Philcox)

Maryse Conde begins her latest novel with a gambit that would not be out of place in an episode of Law & Order: Living in Cape Town, South Africa, a notable English scholar and critic named Stephen Stewart goes down to the corner for cigarettes one midnight, and never comes home, an apparent victim of the random street violence plaguing the city in the years following the end of apartheid.

Stewart leaves behind a common-law wife of 20 years, a struggling West Indian painter named Roselie, who is cast into such grief that she decides she can never leave South Africa, but must remain there to tend Stephen’s grave and his memory. Opportunities to return to her native Guadalupe are to be spurned, and an invitation to join a new suitor — she’s only 50, and still alluring — in Washington must painfully be turned aside.

The police detective investigating the crime urges Roselie to find her lover’s cell phone, but she can hardly focus on his request. The detective suspects Stephen received a call from someone he knew, who lured him to his death.

Because white Stephen and black Roselie failed to formalize their union, she is left with scant financial resources. Little market exists for her paintings, though she has worked at them diligently, and she turns instead to her long undeveloped gift as a psychic healer to earn a few rand.

Of course, no one reads Maryse Conde, a leading Caribbean novelist for 30 years now, for the familiar pleasures of a police procedural. The Story of the Cannibal Woman may have the rough form of a mystery novel, but not the substance, though it must be noted Conde, unlike many literary authors, does resolve the mystery of who killed Stephen and why. The deeper mysteries of who he was, and what he meant to Roselie, are more fluid questions, and therein lie the real joys of this ambitious novel.

It is only one of the delicious ironies of this book that Roselie, presented as a genuine medium, has no insight, second or otherwise, into what happened at the moment of Stephen’s death, nor into the ways in which he deceived and oppressed her during their long and seemingly happy time together. Steven rescued Roselie from prostitution, after her first husband abandoned her, and she is blind to his faults.

Flitting back and forth in time, Conde parcels out the rich texture of Roselie’s life in piecemeal fashion, a strategy that invests The Story of the Cannibal Woman with enormous narrative verve. Though written in French, and subject to the occasional awkward construction in translation, it is nonetheless a book of strong narrative juice, its language so rewarding that what is happening in any given passage is almost — but not quite — beside the point.

Embedded within this language are little gems of observation, aphorisms, almost, round and complete, though they are never showy, and always serve the narrative: “Baring few exceptions, the neighbors had been beyond reproach, for Death being what it is, when it turns up on this earth, everyone bows and respects it.”

Or: “Lovemaking was no longer a physical, bodily struggle from which they emerged exhausted and sweating. It was a pleasant, uneventful stroll in a familiar garden.” Or still yet, on Roselie’s guilt over taking a lover soon after Stephen’s death: “If he could see her now, how he would suffer! Fortunately, the dead see nothing. The worms are at work under their eyelids, draining the eyeballs to the bone.”

Or this masterstroke, when an elderly liberal white woman hardens after her bookstore is robbed, lamenting how quickly black Africans had learned to imitate their white oppressors in murder, larceny and rape: “Something they have always done,” muses Roselie. “But you didn’t want to admit it. You always thought them to be innocent smiling angels, ready to proffer the other cheek. For better or for worse, they are showing you they are men, quite simply men. Neither devils nor angels.”

In that passage might be located the genius of Conde’s entire oeuvre: The dark peoples of the world, women as well as men, are neither devils nor angels, neither children to be protected nor slaves to be worked to death. The Story of the Cannibal Woman revisits the issues Conde has examined in such modern classics of Caribbean fiction as Segu (1987); I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (1992); or Windward Heights (1998), a retelling of Wuthering Heights set in the West Indies: Racism, imperialism, miscegenation, the struggle of emerging Caribbean and African peoples after centuries of European exploitation, and, not least, the shabby treatment of women under the boot heel of men.

A replay of familiar multicultural tropes might grow repetitively tiresome in the hands of a lesser novelist, but Conde keeps in sight the nuanced individuality of her characters, who are never reduced to paragons of virtue or villainy, never used merely as mouthpieces.

Why Maryse Conde is not more famous is another mystery. True, she has taught at Columbia, Berkeley, the Sorbonne, and taken home numerous literary awards. But she is the equal of American and European writers of far greater repute. Perhaps if she were invited to appear on Oprah, or the Nobel stage in Stockholm, she might at last gather the large and appreciative readership merited by the quality of her work.