Monday, May 18, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman

Title:  An Unnecessary Woman
Author:  Rabih Alameddine
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2014. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0802122140 / 978-0802122148

Book Source:  I read this book based on the cover, title, and the description of how the main character feels about books.

Opening Sentence:  "You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration."

Favorite Quote:  "I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books. Transmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass - an hourglass that drains grain by grain. Literature gives me life, and life kills me."

Aaliya. 72 years old. Blue-haired. No longer married. Former bookseller. Well read. Shut-in. Well informed. Alone. Leading "the singular life of an obsessive introvert" according to Mr. Alameddine's website.

This book is absolutely and completely a character study. It essentially has very little plot. It spans a time of only a few days. Yet, the book manages to cover decades of history, both of Aaliya's life and of her beloved home. "Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities:  insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, again, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."

Much of the book is an internal dialogue. Aaliya invokes a life time of reading in a running commentary on the her life. Her memories - walking away her marriage, being divorced in a time and place with that is still unusual, living alone, stepping back from family expectations - form the background. Literary works ranging from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Burroughs to Leo Tolstoy and WG Sebald provide the commentary. Together, the two create a mosaic of a life.

Aaliya has spent the majority of her adult life living in the same apartment in Beirut. She has seen the city go through war, peace, and everything in between. Aaliya is alone - no husband and no children. She does have family; however, they don't understand her life choices and seem more concerned about her apartment than about her. She has neighbors, but she has always held herself apart. Deemed eccentric and outlandish, she leads her own life - a life that may now be in crisis.

At one time, she worked in a bookstore and read. Oh my, did she read! Now, she no longer works, but she still reads. Over the years, she has also taken one literary work a year and translated it into her beloved Arabic. That is her life's work, her legacy. However, no one has ever seen the work. Upon completion, she lovingly packs up her work and stores it. She has done this for 37 works of literature  - almost four decades of work, longer for some works took longer than a year. All in her apartment, and all only for her to see.

Here is an incredibly complex woman in a city with a complicated, often volatile history. The book is a history of her life through her eyes and a growing concern as she ages and as a crisis threatens what she holds most dear.

This book is quite the challenge to read for many reasons. First, it has very little plot and essentially one primary character. Second, the narrative form of an internal dialogue gives a fragmented quality to the text. A reader has to take a step back to see the image being formed. Third, Aaliya lives a life of books and her musings contain numerous references to works of literature and philosophy - many that I haven't read. The ones I know, of course, are easy. However, others lead to two different reactions. I find myself looking up the reference or just letting some go without a complete understanding. This book is definitely one for bibliophiles.

Regardless of the challenges, however, something in this book - something about Aaliya - speaks to me. She is perhaps one of the most memorable characters I have read recently. The statements about life in this book speak to me:
  • "Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter."
  • "We needed an explanation because we couldn't deal with the fact that it could have been any one of us. Assuming causation ... lets us believe that it can't happen to us because we wouldn't do such a thing. We are different. They are the other."
  • "No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed."
A very challenging read, but a memorable character and an eloquent book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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