A classic of queer literature that’s as electrifying today as it was when it originally appeared in 1982, On a Woman’s Madness tells the story of Noenka, a courageous Black woman merely trying to live a life of her choosing. When her abusive husband of just nine days refuses her request for divorce, Noenka flees her hometown in Suriname, on South America's tropical northeastern coast, for the capital city of Paramaribo. Unsettled and unsupported, life in this new place is illuminated by the passionate romances of the present but haunted by society’s expectations and her ancestral past.
Astrid Roemer’s intimate novel—with its tales of plantation-dwelling snakes; rare orchids; and star-crossed lovers—is a blistering meditation on the cruelties we inflict on people who don’t conform. The first Surinamese winner of the prestigious Dutch Literature Prize, translated into sensuous English for the first time by Lucy Scott, Roemer carves out postcolonial Suriname in barbed, resonant fragments. Who is Noenka? Roemer asks us. “I’m Noenka,“ she responds resolutely, “which means Never Again.”
Roemer makes her English-language debut with this classic of queer Black literature, originally published in the Netherlands in 1982, about a Surinamese woman who flees from her marriage after nine days. A newlywed Noenka arrives alone from her village to the capital of Paramarimbo, bent on living her life on her own terms having separated from her possessive and frightening husband, a wastrel named Louis Niewenhuis. In this new cosmopolitan world, she becomes a wanderer. Never far from the persecutions of whites and the example of her strict Catholic mother, denied a divorce from Louis, and well aware of the experiences of her plantation-born father, Noenka slips into an abusive relationship with a man named Ramses, who is equal parts savior and captor. She then falls in love with a woman named Gabrielle and searches for a new definition of love that encapsulates the couple's mysterious passion, which persists in the face of prejudice and colonial attitudes. "I know it," Roemer writes, "there are limits, but do they exist for love?" The author vividly conveys the narrator's inner life, as Noenka teeters at the precipice of madness. As Roemer pushes at the boundaries of the senses, she melds biting postcolonial social commentary with a lush dreamscape. Scott's translation is a gift to English-language readers. Correction: The character Noenka's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this review.