Saturday, November 22, 2014

"An Unnecessary Woman," by Rabih Alameddine

There was a time in my twenties that I methodically read through large swathes of contemporary literature from various parts of the world, including the Middle East. Later on I taught classes in women’s literature, including one called “Contemporary Fiction by Nonwestern Women” that included several works by Middle Eastern writers. But it has been years since I have read much if anything in this broad category. Reading a couple of very positive reviews led me to Rabih Alameddine’s 2013 novel, “An Unnecessary Woman” (Grove Press), and I am so glad it did. This is an intense novel about a woman in her early seventies who has lived in Beirut her whole life. Aaliya Saleh is semi-estranged from her family, had an early, short, unsuccessful marriage, and has lived on her own in an apartment ever since. For a long time she worked in a bookstore, and she did have one very close friend, Hannah, but that friend died some years before the present time of the novel. Her salvation, through everything, including the terrible wars and destruction affecting Lebanon for so long, has been literature. She reads and reads and reads, both fiction and nonfiction. And she translates. She has chosen a new book every year for some years, and translated it into Arabic. Then she has put the translation away and begun a new one. A room in her apartment is full of these translations, which no one else has ever seen. She does not believe her translations are of interest to anyone else, and does not attempt to publish them. But they are her life’s work, her joy, her consolation. She loves and mourns the city of Beirut, and often walks through it. She does have interactions with a few people, including three other older women who live in her apartment building, but not often and not in any sustained way. There is not much plot, although some events of the past are gradually revealed throughout. And near the end of the novel there is an event that affects Aaliya strongly, in a negative way but ultimately, in a note of hope, in a positive way. It is not a critical plot point in the sense of a surprise twist, and if I gave it away here, it would not change your appreciation of the book if you read it, but still, I will respect the convention of not doing so. In any case, this thoughtful, beautifully written novel is very much focused on the main character rather than on plot. Aaliya is a world of her own. We learn about her appearance, her habits, her preferences, but most of all we learn about her deep engagement with literature, which is her obsession and her savior. It took me a little while to become engaged with the novel, but once I did, I found it deeply repaid my attention. In its own understated way, it is a truly masterful portrait and a riveting one.

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