Sunday, February 15, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine

Aaliya Saleh is a 75-year-old Beiruti, retired from her job in a book store but still pursuing her true work--translating classic literary works into Arabic. Each year she translates one book and then boxes it up and puts it in the "maid's room" of her apartment.

Literature provides Aaliya's only company. She is divorced and estranged from her family; her one friend, Hannah, committed suicide decades earlier and the lover she sees most to miss, a young Palestinian, was exiled years ago. She refers to the other three women who live in her apartment building as the "witches."

Not much actually happens in An Unnecessary Woman: the action takes place mostly in Aaliya's memory, as she recalls various unhappinesses of her past. Nearly every memory evokes a literary allusion--or several--and it is these memories of beauty that sustain Aaliya through the upheaval that characterizes Beirut in the last decades of the 20th century. Despite her longstanding isolation, Aaliya is finding herself unusually emotional, and the book ends with a crisis that seems like it may bring a shift in her way of living (but we cannot be sure).

I enjoyed the beginning of this book and the humor that Alameddine employs like a weapon against politicians and authors alike (Aaliya would not wish her mother's screaming "on anyone, not Benjamin Netanyahu, not even Ian McEwan"). As the book progressed, however (and it is not even 300 pages), I became somewhat tired of Aaliya's philosophizing, quoting, and alluding to novels (many of which, in my ignorance, I have not read). The extremely well-read reader might find the book more enjoyable, but I don't think the average book-lover would find it entirely rewarding.

Favorite passages:
Bluster and hubris, that what he was, what he is, but that's what makes him more dangerous in some ways. Think Bush--that indecent amalgam of banality and perdition.

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