Ramatoulaye, the narrator (living in Dakar, Senegal), addresses her friend, Aissatou, who lives far away, in America. Ramatoulaye writes that she has received Aissatou’s letter and that, by way of reply, she has decided to write a diary. This diary, she decides, will serve as a “prop in [her] distress”—though she doesn’t yet reveal what has caused this distress. First she recalls her childhood with Aissatou, listing off a series of discrete images: the two of them walking along the same road to koranic school, and the two of them burying their baby teeth in the same hole.
The immediate intimacy of Ramatoulaye’s address establishes how close these two friends are, and how close they remain despite the physical distance between them. At first Ramatoulaye’s promise to keep a diary that will also serve as a letter to Aissatou seems like a contradiction—one typically thinks of a diary as private, and a letter as inherently shared. Yet Ramatoulaye’s memories from their childhood together makes it clear that the two friends share everything—and thus this diary/letter gives the novel its unique form.
Ramatoulaye then reveals the cause of her distress: “Yesterday you were divorced,” she writes, “today I am a widow.” Ramatoulaye’s estranged husband, Modou, has died suddenly of a heart attack. Ramatoulaye describes to Aissatou the phone call she received informing her of the news, as well as her trip to the hospital, and her encounter with the body. She explains that Mawdo, Modou’s doctor friend and Aissatou’s ex-husband, was called to the scene but arrived too late—all his attempts to resuscitate Modou were for naught—and describes his sadness with a certain tenderness. Distraught and confused, Ramatoulaye seeks consolation in remembered verses from the Koran.
Although Ramatoulaye is estranged from Modou, she receives the news of his death with the solemnity, awe, and devotion that her faith demands, and with the grief of a loving spouse. Similarly, she expresses her tenderness toward Mawdo without restraint, despite his estrangement from the letter’s addressee, her friend Aissatou. For Ramatoulaye, death is a sacred matter, the gravity of which overcomes (if only for a moment) feelings of animosity or remorse. Here we also see the strength of Ramatoulaye’s Islamic faith, and the way that it informs her life, emotion, and decision-making on almost every level.