The Braid by Letitia Colombani (transl. Louise Rogers Lalaurie): Take three women

Cover imageLetitia Colombani’s The Braid is one of those elegantly structured novellas that manages to pack a great deal into fewer than two hundred pages. Three women’s stories intersect in a way that none of them can imagine when the book begins. They will remain unknown to each other yet each will have played a crucial role in changing the others’ lives.

Smita is a Dalit in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, an untouchable whose job is to empty the latrines by hand. The ostracism of Dalits from society was outlawed by Mahatma Gandhi yet Smita and her rat-catcher husband continue to be spurned. Smita is determined that her six-year-old daughter won’t suffer the same humiliation and is prepared to go to any lengths to protect her.

Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business that has been established for generations. When her father is left comatose after an accident, Giulia discovers that all is not what it seems with their finances. Her Sikh lover offers a solution which isn’t welcomed by everyone.

Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm, a position hard-won and at great cost. She never mentions her children at work, hiding domestic difficulties and maternal guilt behind a mask of calm capability. Illness cannot be countenanced. When Sarah finds she has cancer she tucks the knowledge away, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work.

Colombani uses the conceit of telling the stories of Smita, Giulia and Sarah through a wig maker, interweaving their three separate narratives into a braid. It’s a device that works well: the wig maker makes a brief appearance at the start and end of the book with the occasional interpolation in between. Each of the stories explores the societies in which these three women live: Smita’s abject poverty, locked into a caste system sustained by corruption and lack of education; resistance to Giulia’s innovation in traditional, male dominated Sicilian society; Sarah’s discovery that the glass ceiling hasn’t been entirely shattered in her intensely competitive law firm where loyalty counts for nothing. All three women changes their lives for the better on their own terms, facing apparently insurmountable problems with courage and determination. It’s a heartening story, fable-like in its telling but not sugar-coated, and an appealing one. Proof, yet again, of the power of the novella – not that I needed it.

18 thoughts on “The Braid by Letitia Colombani (transl. Louise Rogers Lalaurie): Take three women”

  1. I love the idea of their lives being a braid! I must admit I thought it sounded very downbeat so was glad to see that you mentioned they weren’t completely beaten by their circumstances. Novellas can be so much more effective than some of the bloated novels out there…

    1. The structure is so neatly done. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on with the wig maker to begin with but her interruptions are few and far between. Absolutely agree about novellas. Every word counts.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Lara. I’m quite a fan of novellas. Here are a few more you might like: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan, The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorothe Nors and Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli. They’re all reviewed on the blog if you’d like a bit more info on them.

  2. I think you know that you’ve convinced me very quickly on this one! It sounds wonderful. I’m still not sure I’ll manage my novella project in May this year but if I do. this will definitely feature.

  3. OH, wow, this sounds amazing, right up my street. The library doesn’t currently have a copy, but I will see whether an ILL could bring me a copy.

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