Lebanese-born American writer Rabih Alameddine’s novel, An unnecessary woman, is tailor-made for readers. It was fittingly, therefore, my reading group’s first book for 2018. The novel is told first person in the voice of 72-year-old childless, divorced Aaliya Saleh, who lives alone and spends her time reading and translating books. Set in an apartment in Beirut in the 2000s, it has a minimal plot, focusing more on the thoughts and ideas of this reclusive woman who describes herself as her “family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage”.
However, before I tell you more about the subject-matter and why I so enjoyed this book, a little warning. This is the quintessential literary novel. It is packed with literary references and allusions, not to mention references to musicians and artists. One of Aaliya’s favourite authors is the also-reclusive “connoisseur of alienation”, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and he appears regularly, but she also mentions, in no particular order, WG Sebald, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Patrick White (whom she adores), Helen Garner, Marguerite Youcenar, JM Coetzee, António Lobo Antunes, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Shakespeare, and many, many, many more. While I know the authors I’ve named here, I certainly don’t know all those she mentions – but it doesn’t matter. Well, it might, in that more knowledge might add all sorts of nuances to the book’s meaning, but all I can say is that I enjoyed it with what I do know.
But now the subject-matter. Where to start? The book covers a lot of ground. It’s about living in a war-torn city and country; it’s about relationships, gender and women’s lives in a patriarchal society in which her “half brothers, like so many men and boys, have the impatience of the entitled”; it’s about aloneness and loneliness; and, best of all, it’s about books and reading. It’s this last one I want to focus on, partly because it’s the one that gave me the most chuckles.
These chuckles aren’t of the belly-laugh variety. They’re more subtle, coming particularly from allusions and irony. Take for example this comment, a bit over halfway through the book:
Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany. I call these memoirs and confessional novels happy tragedies. We shall overcome and all that. I find them sentimental and boring.
This comment made me laugh because her story is, essentially, “a series of whines followed by an epiphany”, for all her dislike of epiphanies. “Enough”, she says, “have pity on readers who reach the end of real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment”. This book is, you might be seeing now, also about the intersection between reading and life. To what extent do they inform each other?
Another of her dislikes, in life and in literature, is the idea of “causality”. Alain Robbe-Grillet, she says, “wrote that the worst thing to happen to the novel was the arrival of psychology”, meaning, she believes, “that now we all expect to understand the motivation behind each character’s actions, as if that’s possible, as if life works that way”. So literature, in other words, needs to reflect life. She writes:
I’ve read so many recent novels, particularly those published in the Anglo world, that are dull and trite because I’m always supposed to infer causality. For example, the reason a protagonist can’t experience love is that she was physically abused, or the hero constantly searches for validation because his father paid little attention to him as a child. This, of course, ignores the fact that many others have experienced the same things but do not behave in the same manner, though that’s a minor point compared to the real loss in fulfilling the desire for explanation: the loss of mystery. Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader.
Interesting point, this “loss of mystery”, this sense that life cannot be so easily explained. She gives an example from “life” of a woman killed, during the civil war, while driving home from work. People proposed all sorts of reasons why it happened. She was a spy, or was a bank courier carrying a large amount of money, or was wearing a flashy diamond, whereas in fact she was just unlucky. “A stray bullet killed her”.
For Aaliyah there is something fundamentally wrong with this cause-focused approach to reading, and to living. She writes:
If you read these pages and think I’m the way I am because I lived through a civil war, you can’t feel my pain. If you believe you’re not like me because one woman, and only one, Hannah, chose to be my friend, then you’re unable to empathize.
This idea that finding causes for what happens to others enables us to distance ourselves from responsibility and to feel safe, has, says Aaliya, been explored by philosophers, such as the “ponderous and portentous” Sartre! Aaliyah, you see, is not cowed by big names and reputations. Nonetheless, she admits that, while she’s trained herself “not to keep inferring or expecting causality in literature”, she constantly wants explanations in life “where none exist”. “Uncertainty”, she says later, “is unsettling”!
I enjoyed Aaliya’s cheeky, somewhat self-mocking voice, the way, for example, her commentary is peppered with allusions – particularly, pointedly, from Macbeth – that tease the reader. But it’s not all light. There’s seriousness – pathos – too. For all her enjoyment of reading and translating (which is another whole topic I could write about), Aaliya is not as happy as she seems. She’s aware of ageing – and refers to Helen Garner’s belief “that all women over sixty instinctively learn to pass by a mirror without looking”- and she is lonely in her chosen aloneness:
It is the loneliness, the abject isolation. Hannah reappears in my memories to remind me of how alone I am, how utterly inconsequential my life has become, how sad.
It is partly in regard to this theme – and to the role of the “three witches” in her building – that Aaliyah has her “damn epiphany” at the end!
Besides the discussion of books and reading, the description of life in Beirut, and the analysis of the outsider’s life, An unnecessary woman has much more to offer, including its small but colourful cast of characters and some gorgeous language. This description of a saucer, for example, is surely also a metaphor for Aaliyah:
The rim of the saucer’s depression is lightly discoloured – a dusting of rust and red and brown, remnants of teas gone by that did not wish to be washed away, refused to be forgotten, the age rings of a small plate.
By her actions, Aaliya, despite her “age rings”, shows that she does “not wish to be washed away”, that she refuses “to be forgotten”. She will not, in other words, accept being “unnecessary”.
I have barely scratched the surface of this thoughtful yet playful book that teases us with an idea and then, more often than not, turns it on its head. It is this mixing of the playful with the serious, in Aailya’s compelling voice, that makes this largely plotless novel such an involving read.
An unnecessary woman
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922148292 (eBook)