“There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment. Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear as and concise as your stories.”
Seventy-two year old Aaliya has lived a retired life in Beirut ever since her husband left her after only four years of marriage, when she was just twenty years old. Laying claim to the marital home, a small apartment in a four storey building, Aaliya builds a quiet life for herself, working in a bookshop by day, and translating twentieth century literature into Arabic by night. Each year she chooses a new project, using an English and a French translation of her title of choice as the source material for her own translations. Even the civil war and subsequent unrest that shakes Beirut cannot disturb her routine overmuch. Aaliya has held on to her home and her independence for more than five decades, despite repeated efforts by her family to claim the apartment from her, until her eldest half-brother’s latest attempt to foist responsibility for their extremely elderly mother onto Aaliya’s shoulders finally shakes her routine irrevocably.
Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel follows the first person narrative of a woman at once brave and fragile, and interrogates the difference between loneliness and solitude. At first glance, Aaliya’s routine seems solitary but purposeful. She enjoyed a long career as a bookseller until the shop closed four years ago and she retired. In her spare time, she has translated thirty-seven works of world literature into Arabic, including such massive titles as Anna Karenina and The Book of Disquiet. But as we follow Aaliya’s train of thought over the course of a few days surrounding her brother’s unwelcome visit, the cracks in her façade become clear.
After her divorce, there are only two significant figures in Aaliya’s life, her shop assistant, Ahmad, and her friend, Hannah. However, it becomes apparent that the decades-past end of these two relationships have left scars that prevent her from forming new bonds. Even though she has lived in the same building for five decades, where her original landlord’s daughter is now the landlady, she is not close to her neighbours. The other women in her building meet every morning for coffee on the stoop above hers, but while Aaliya often listens at the window to their conversations, sharing their joys and sorrows, she never joins them, preferring to occupy herself with her translations. And although Aaliya is certainly an experienced translator, no one has ever seen her work. Furthermore, she is convinced no one would ever want to see it, since her works are translations of translations, because she has forbidden herself to translate any work originally published in English or French, the two languages besides Arabic that she speaks.
An Unnecessary Woman chronicles Aaliya’s increasingly disquieted ruminations, during a period when her usual routines can bring her no comfort. She is particularly disturbed by her inability to settle on a book to translate as the New Year approaches, threatening the very system she has built her life around. Though the action is sparse, Alameddine’s striking way with words, particularly playing with similar sounding words, gives Aaliya a strong voice. Of her early marriage, she says that she was “gifted to the first unsuitable suitor to appear at our door.” Of her mother’s inability to understand the failure of Aaliya’s marriage, she remarks “in her world, husbands were omnipotent, not impotent.” Alameddine’s metaphors are also noteworthy. “When I think of him, my memory’s eyes have cataracts,” says Aaliya of her inability to recall what her stepfather looked like. “I am my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage,” she says of her early home life. Alameddine’s carefully crafted prose and command of world literature turn this quiet work into a force to be reckoned with.