Thursday, July 3, 2014

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN, sad and fierce tale of a forgotten woman


Grove Press
$25.00 hardcover, $16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: One of Beirut’s most celebrated voices, Rabih Alameddine follows his international bestseller, The Hakawati, with a heartrending novel that celebrates the singular life of an obsessive introvert, revealing Beirut’s beauties and horrors along the way.

Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, divorced, and childless, Aaliya is her family’s "unnecessary appendage.” Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated have never been read—by anyone. After overhearing her neighbors, "the three witches,” discussing her too-white hair, Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair too blue.

In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.

A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of a single woman's reclusive life in the Middle East.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is to discuss your favorite novel in translation. So far this year, this is my hands-down favorite novel translated from the furrin. **CORRECTION** The novel was written in English, but it's so beautiful I don't want to take it down!

What does it mean to be invisible? If you choose not to interact with the world, become a recluse, divest yourself of close relationships and divorce yourself from the life of the boudoir, and seal yourself away in a capsule formed of books and words, you are a freak. Aaliya's neighbors think she's a ruined woman. Aaliya's customers at the bookstore she works at, intellectuals all, don't notice her enough to form an opinion, and her family (absent the dearest companion of her life, her *true* family, a departed friend) hasn't given her much attention at all.

She lives in Beirut, that once-fabulous once-gorgeous ruin on the Mediterranean, an early victim of the endless idiotic religious wars of the region. Aaliya represents Beirut's decline from a world-class cultural center to a shuttered mass of broken buildings holding wary, angry people.

Aaliya is an angry woman, or at least I see her as such, and has walled herself in to avoid the nasty consequences of being angry amid armed and angry men. She would not be isolated if Beirut wasn't what it is, I think, because she is a reflection of the energy of that wounded and dying place. She preserves her sanity by translating her beloved books, the beauties of which she renders into the sinuous sonorous rhythms of Arabic. And then, like she does with her self, she packages them up and puts them away. They are safe. They are invisible.

This is tragic. This is a sin. A woman, a mere woman, cannot be her full self; a book, a useless object, cannot spread its beauties for fear that it will not be appreciated or will be used as a weapon by the religious idiots.

And this is the reason I give this book over four stars. Alameddine has created a literary person's most deeply felt example of why the world appears to be headed directly for the bottom of the septic tank: Aaliya reads and thinks on and renders the majesty and magic of words into the language of her people, and then cannot, will not, dare not allow them out of her keeping.

This book should have made me feel claustrophobic. It appears to be a scream from within the coffin that anti-intellectual religious idiots are all but nailing shut around the world. (Creation SCIENCE?! REALLY?!) Instead I felt...uplifted in a curious way, heartened, encouraged. Alameddine sees it too! He created this most marginal of marginal beings, the unmarried childless woman intellectual in an Islamic society, and set her to singing. Aaliya sings her thoughts, sings her translations, warbles her precious quotes to herself, her best and only audience. She makes beauty from beauty as she sits and rots in the cesspool of gawd.

I don't know if this is a cautionary tale, an elegy, or the queitest jeremiad of all time. I do know that I can't, and don't wish to, forget Aaliya.


  1. Great review! The book sounds a bit heartbreaking.

    1. Thank you for stopping to say so! It is a bit heartbreaking, but it's very very memorably wonderful too.


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