Astrid H. Roemer

On a Woman’s Madness

An epic, many-layered feminist love story set in a fragmented post-colonial society

‘I am Noenka, which means Not Again. Born of two opposites, a woman and a man who pull even my dreams wide open. I am a woman, even if I don’t know where that begins and where being a woman ends, and in other people’s eyes I am black, and I keep wondering what that means.’

After the young Afro-Surinamese woman Noenka is raped by her husband Louis on their wedding night, she flees in search of refuge. But having broken the unwritten rules of her community, she has no choice but to leave her small town and move to the city. There she faces agonizing choices: between motherhood and freedom, between European, African, and indigenous traditions, and between the violent but seductive Louis, her gentle childhood friend Ramses, and the alluring Gabrielle. Noenka’s indecision drives her to the brink of madness. Will she give up her new-found independence and return to her husband? As the novel reaches its devastating climax, she realizes – too late – what her heart is telling her.

When On a Woman’s Madness was first published in 1982, it provoked strong and diverse responses. This complex and challenging novel captivated readers, selling some 40,000 copies soon after publication. Roemer herself has described it as a ‘fragmentary autobiography’: ‘The story is not my story, the facts are not mine, but the emotions are my own. It is the story of my emotional process.’

The bold and original use of typography, flashbacks, and internal monologue make this a many-layered novel that raises more questions than it answers.

Noenka’s struggles are emblematic of the dilemmas of decolonization in a country struggling with both the legacy of Western slavery and oppression and its own internal systems of racism and patriarchy. The resolution for which she longs is a new, egalitarian kind of love, which embraces the beauty and mystery of difference. Roemer used her position as an expatriate writer to shatter taboos and confront the traumas of Surinamese history and culture head-on. But most of all, she created a timeless classic about a woman’s quest for love and identity.

The atmosphere of a thriller, combined with the lyrical description of a woman’s inner world, makes On a Woman’s Madness a most exceptional book.


The whole book is a headlong search for identity, the identity of all women. Spellbinding prose, like rampant vegetation.

Literair Nederland

Its wealth of sights, scents, and colours and its sensuality, exceptional in Dutch literature, make On a Woman’s Madness a great literary achievement, linked thematically to Louis Couperus … and stylistically to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Judges’ report, P.C. Hooft Prize 2016

My marriage lasted exactly nine days and sent a shock wave through our riparian state that unsettled me for life.
It began in the family circle, where on that ninth night I knocked to wake my parents.
There was rain pouring down, hard and insistent, and as the roof of our house was quite flat, the sound that my knuck- les made on the wood did not penetrate the interior and in fact merged with the regular rainfall. Dead calm filled the house.
My hands hurt, hurt worse than my head and my belly, and I was drenched. And scared, not just of the menace of the grave- yard by the house, which looked like a theatrical set in a dream in the flashes of lightning, but of the dreariness of the whole sleeping city, which had allowed itself to be overrun by the water, and of the house itself, my father and mother’s, which denied me entrance in my desperate search for face powder and brass polish, tobacco and the smell of old newspapers to wipe away the stench of blood that clung to me.
I was no longer knocking, but pounding hard and shouting.
Mockingly, the water and wind tossed my cries back into my ears.
It hurts! It hurts!
Behind me gaped The Other Side.

Moments later, irritated but relieved, I stood in the timid light of the kitchen, wondering when the last time was that I had climbed in through the window that wouldn’t close properly, but that memory gave way to the sudden urge to burrow away into the shelter of my mother, as deep as I could, as fast as I could. It came over me like warmth; I made my hungry way to their room. As if in a ritual, I laid my hand on the marble door- knob, turned, pushed.
Years later I understood: inside that door I crossed my threshold for pain.

They said I was a beautiful girl. Moi misi, they would call out to me, and they pulled me toward them, the women in their pleated skirts, so that my head was level with their bellies. Some smelled like fresh fish, but there were also odors of decay that invaded my head. I groaned and pulled free.

(Excerpt translated by David McKay)

Astrid H. Roemer

In 1966, at the age of 19, Astrid Roemer emigrated from Suriname to the Netherlands. She identifies herself as a cosmopolitan writer. Exploring themes of race, gender, family, and identity, her poetic, unconventional prose stands in the tradition of authors such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.…

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Over de gekte van een vrouw (1982). Fiction, 221 pages.
Copies sold: 21,000


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