When I was single and living alone in NYC a common fear of my ilk, although not one of mine, was “I’ll end up a bag lady.” The fear of one’s own quirkiness, of solitary wanderings, of having no home or anyone to care for you or to care for. I suppose I was too busy then to worry about what was around the corner, like Aaliya Sobhi, the main character of Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, who writes “When every Arab girl stood in line waiting for God to hand out the desperate-to-get-married gene, I must have been somewhere else, probably lost in a book.” Alas I too lacked the gene, but I now know that you can indeed be married while lusting and losing oneself in books.
I received a galley for An Unnecessary Woman (bless you, NetGalley) in digital form, but it wasn’t until I saw its red cover on the library shelf and picked it up that I actually dove in, ironically into the e-version, using the hard copy as sort of a token, like the one DeCaprio used in Inception. (In a perfect world I’d have every book in all forms, so I could leap from one to the next depending on the moment.) I’m glad I did.
This is Aaliya’s story, told via her memories and her telling of them, but also through the words of the authors who inhabit her life, as real to her, or even more real, than the flesh-and-blood people, however scarce, with whom she interacts. Bolaño and Yourcenar, Saramago and Kant, Bernhard and Proust, Milosz and Pavese… they are all here, their words swirling in her mind and spilling onto the page, others translated faithfully by her (from the English and French versions) and lovingly placed in the boxes she keeps in her maid’s room without a maid. This is a veritable orgy of words, of their power, of their magic, a love story of literature (and a tribute, no doubt, to the author’s well-readedness, which humbles us mere mortals). I marked so many passages I loved that the pages bled with them.
But these are the garments and underneath is the heart and the tale of a woman battered by circumstance, by gender and war and social awkwardness. This is the story of a woman disappeared, who of herself says, “I am my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage.” Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. We follow seventy-two years of her life along with the history of Beirut, from the dullness of routine to its unexpected interruptions, “Sometimes I think that’s enough, a few moments of ecstasy in a life of Beckett dullness.”
The passages about living in wartime Beirut remind us that life goes on, that even under sniper fire and bombs and death and scarcity people still had to go out to look for a loaf of bread, people still got married, find their strength to endure. Time and longevity, priorities take on a new sense: “Every Beiruti of a certain age has learned that on leaving for a walk you should never be too sure of returning home, not only because something might happen to you personally, but also because your home might cease to exist.” Perhaps because of this her circle of existence narrows until it nearly disappears.
Aaliya copes by embracing life’s routine, planning each step of her external day as she does with her translations, which she begins each January 1st with the hope and anticipation of a schoolgirl. “I translate books with my invented system because it makes time flow more gently.” She lines up her papers, her notebooks, her special pencils and sharpeners and erasers so that each year is a new beginning, a rebirth of sorts, “pregnant with possibilities.” Her weaknesses disturb her but she controls what she can, and in doing so frees her internal life, that of her beloved words and their authors, who dance about freely amidst the clutter of mind and space.
The author paints for us a character who is duller than dull on the outside (although that blue hair is genious!) but whose inner life, spread open to us like a ripe fig, is bursting with humor and wit. This is really a very funny book, hardly what one would expect in a book about an aged spinster, for we are privy to her thoughts which indeed recall the sadness of her life but are also a running commentary on past and present from her unique and amusing perspective. Our feelings for her begin as pity but soon transform, and by the end we love her, cheering her on as she ventures out into the world, as Alameddine gives us the epiphany Aaliya so often mocked.
A wonderful read, one which whets my appetite for more (The Hakawati added to my virtual bedside table).