Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman

by Rabih Alameddine
Grove     2013
291 pages     Literary Fiction

An Unnecessary Woman was given to me for my 72nd birthday by a 72-year-old friend. It is a novel about a 72-year-old woman who loves books inordinately. Aaliya is a stubborn woman, and a woman who has little need for others in her life; she has her books. She lets us know immediately that her age is no problem. "Let's put it this way: I don't hesitate when buying green bananas." Thus, I liked her immediately.

Aaliya lives in Beirut in an apartment that she has lived in since she was married (and divorced) as a teenager. It is a nice big apartment that her family hates her for having, since she lives there alone and they live in cramped spaces with many children. She managed a bookstore for many years, and her apartment is filled with books. She spends her days translating her favorite books into Arabic, beginning a new book every new year. No one ever sees these translations; they remain boxed in the extra bedroom and bathroom and have never been read by anyone. She has slept at night with a rifle beside her ever since the Civil War.

We are permitted entry into Aaliya's mind and musings, although we would never be permitted entry into her apartment. The three women who live on the other floors of the apartment building are never allowed admittance, even though they would love to see inside. She considers them to be the three witches from Macbeth. Ultimately, it is these three women who save Aaliya from her family and from herself.

Through her musings and her digressions we learn the story of her life and the lives of the people around her. Her only true friend, Hannah, continues to haunt her dreams many years after her death. She says, "My body is full of sentences and moments, my heart resplendent with lovely turns of phrases, but neither is able to be touched by another." By knowing her inner thoughts and feelings, we can know her, understand her, and appreciate her in ways that none of the other people in her life can.  

As she walks the streets of her neighborhood—the only place she ever goes—we learn about Beirut, the "Paris of the Middle East." Aaliya has lived in Beirut her whole life. We see the civil wars and other unrest through Aaliya's eyes, and they are sardonic eyes, at best. She finds a way to live through every inconvenience, every disturbance, with a resigned, ironic sigh. We also learn about the place of women in Lebanese society, the need to marry, and the utter tragedy of a woman without a family.

But aah! There are the books, the authors, the references, the quotes. This is the most overwhelming aspect of the narrative. This bibliophile has read everything, and has an opinion and a quote from everything that she has ever read. (I kept wondering how the author, Rabih Almeddine, had read and kept track of so many books, himself.) The gift for, and love of, literature keeps the reader from feeling sorry for this Unnecessary Woman, because her mind is an incredible mass of knowledge, impression, and opinion. She abides by the philosophy of the Portuguese poet, Pessoa: "The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential." Because of her remarkable mind, we take Aaliya seriously. She is a woman of consequence. She rises above tragic caricature to heroine.

And there is humor. A reviewer mentions that Almeddine is in essence a comic writer, and while this is not a book written for humor, there are many funny moments, primarily Aaliya's asides and throw-away observations. The reader chortles through the stream-of-consciousness meanderings and the digressions. These humorous, yet poignant, asides keep the story moving with expectancy. One reviewer says: "An Unnecessary Woman is an utterly unique love poem to the book and to the tenacity of the feminine spirit. And it's a triumph for Alameddine, who has created a book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to the great works whose beauty and power his novel celebrates." 

The "unnecessary woman" Aaliya warmed my heart and stirred my soul. 

An Unnecessary Woman was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014. Another favorite book about Beirut is Day of Honey, a memoir with food, by Anna Ciezadlo.

The LA Times review.
An interview with Alameddine on NPR.
Rabih Alameddine website.

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