Review: Ourika by Duchesse Claire de Durfort Durass

Welcome to the first installment of Novellas for Monday, a series where we plan to highlight a novella every Monday (or, realistically, some Mondays now and then). These will not necessarily be full reviews, they may just be a nod in the direction of a novella we found interesting. Our first selection is Ourika, available here in the original French, and here in English.

Ourika is a 1823 novella by Claire de Duras, inspired by the real story of a black girl from Senegal living in the Paris high society around the time of the French Revolution. The story is narrated in first person, by a young doctor who meets and treats Ourika (to the reader) and by Ourika herself (to the doctor).

Ourika's entire family was enslaved when she was very young, and a French nobleman took pity on her and took her back to Paris with him. He placed her in the care of his sister, madame de B., who raised her with kindness and devotion, giving her access to the best society and education that noble girls could hope for. Ourika is told about her origins, but has no memories of her life before Paris and is fully committed to her life as madame de B's protegee. She grows up happy, friends with madame's sons, appreciated by the Parisian society for her wit and taste. 

As a teenager, she becomes aware of the difference between her and her peers and of what this difference means for her prospects. She learns that, because of her skin color, she will never be accepted as an adult in the high society that found her entertaining as a child. As she realizes that she doesn't fully belong anywhere and sees as inevitable a life of loneliness, of never being loved, she succumbs to despair and becomes "sick with melancholy."

The Revolution allows her to hope again: in the general chaos and turmoil, societal distinctions seem less important, and Ourika glimpses a world that would have room for her. During the Terror, solidarity in the face of death and loss brings Ourika closer to the family, and she even falls in love. Her melancholy fades and she has a vague indistinct vision of a happy future. But as the Terror winds down, Ourika must face the fact that society is rearranging itself.

My thoughts

I am ambivalent towards this book. The premise is very promising, but I find the execution clumsy. The major problem I see is the lack of dramatic tension. For example, the part where Ourika reviews her options as an educated black girl, only to realize none of them would make her happy, feels a little dry. It is a very interesting enumeration of social groups into which the world is divided (or, rather, of groups into which the noblemen perceived the world to be divided) and their rigid boundaries. But it reads more like an academic effort on the part of the writer than like a character moment.

The framing also contributes to the lack of tension. The doctor tells us the story of his interactions with Ourika and, inside this story, she narrates her life to him. The problem with this kind of literary device is that you need to make the outer story, the „present day” story, engaging, you need to have something be at stake there. Ourika doesn't quite pull it off: the ending has a twist, but since there's no buildup to it, it is not enough to keep the reader's interest. The end result is underwhelming, since the reader can't get very invested in the inner narrative layer, because she already knows where it's headed, and nothing happens in the outer layer. 

The Bottom line

Ourika is not compelling as a novella, neither the plot nor the characters are interesting enough. But it has a certain historical importance, being based on a true story, and valuable social insights into one of Europe's most fascinating periods. Those elements wouldn't be enough to recommend a tedious novel, but Ourika is short enough to be worth the effort. I will give this book 3 stars, after a lot of thought.

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