Book review

'An Unnecessary Woman': A Beirut novel for lovers of books and misfits

Rabih Alameddine's latest novel is narrated by Aaliya, one of fiction's most introverted, socially awkward, bookish characters


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Beirut is a city that compels one to make metaphors. You've probably heard this one: It's the "Paris of the Middle East." Only after living in Beirut did the absurdity of that metaphor strike me, for the capital of Lebanon was unlike any other place.

Rabih Alameddine's latest novel, "An Unnecessary Woman," is set in postwar Beirut, and is narrated by Aaliya, one of fiction's most introverted, socially awkward, bookish characters.


"AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN"
By Rabih Alameddine.
Grove Press ($25).

At 72, Aaliya is an "unnecessary" woman; she's nobody's wife, mother or friend. Much of the novel consists of her unsentimental memories of the past and her musings on literature.

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts and a native of Beirut, Mr. Alameddine is the author of "Perv," a collection of short stories, and two other novels, including the 2008 tour de force "The Hakawati," which means "the storyteller" in Arabic.

For 50 years, Aaliya has translated one work of literature into Arabic every year. These translations get packed into boxes and put into storage in an unused bathroom. These unread translations are a metaphor for Aaliya's isolation. For some reason, Aaliya limits herself to making translations of translations, doubly removing herself from the original text, and her own world.

"An Unnecessary Woman" champions the misfit. Aaliya is drawn to writers and characters who are alienated and dispossessed. She muses: "To write is to know you are not home. I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca." (Aaliya's musings are peppered with quotations from her favorite author, Fernando Pessoa, and many others. Aaliya's frame of reference is literature and philosophy; every event or person reminds her of something literary. I emerged from the book with a lengthy list of global literature to read.

Aaliya's disconnect is a difficult pill to swallow. Even though she can relate with empathy to literature, she finds no compulsion to care for her 90-year-old mother. It's only after her mother screams at her that she feels jolted into visiting the old lady. There's a tender scene in which Aaliya washes her mother's feet in humility and meets her teenage niece for the first time. Mr. Alameddine doesn't force an epiphany for his narrator; it's not clear if Aaliya cares that she's so alienated from her family.

Aaliya compares Beirut to a woman. Beirut is a "whore" or "the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden." These comparisons suggest another layer of meaning. If Beirut is a woman, then she is an unnecessary one. Perpetually at war, she returns to the scene of conflict over and over, never the wiser to her own historical narrative. She is unaware of her own potential.

Crisis hits when water damages Aaliya's translations. It's her neighbors -- the three women that Aaliya calls "witches" -- who come to her rescue, drying pages with hair dryers and hanging wet pages on indoor laundry lines.

In its concluding moves, the novel plays with contradiction as it offers a predictable closure, and possible epiphany. As the women converse about "Anna Karenina" and husbands, there's a sense of female camaraderie around books. Aaliya decides to translate again, this time from the original text.

Aaliya's excitement to translate J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians" or Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" signals other risk taking. "I've been studying the water while snugly nestled within the safety of a boat, but now I will swim in the murky waters."

"An Unnecessary Woman" is a book lover's book. If you've ever felt not at home in the world -- or in your own skin -- or preferred the company of a good book to that of an actual person, this book will welcome you with open arms and tell you that you're not alone. You just might find a home within its pages.

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh. She studied Arabic and the history of the Lebanese civil war at the American University of Beirut (julie.azzam@gmail.com).


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