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An Unnecessary Woman
on January 5, 2014
Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman is a rare book indeed. This is the first time I recall reading an intelligent story about an older woman - completely about an older woman and no other characters - since Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent. The brilliant Alameddine has managed to beautifully capture the innermost thoughts of a complex, intelligent, lonely, and independent Beiruti woman in her early 70s – that’s something you don’t come across every day! Aaliya is not an incidental mother or wife, some ancillary character supporting male counterparts that could be removed from the story with little consequence – no, she is the heart, soul and troubled psyche of this intensely thoughtful, quietly moving book. Alameddine does an amazing job of empathizing with Aaliya and making her situation, her thoughts and experiences, real. A largely self-educated woman of high intelligence - an anomaly in Beirut society due to her independence and intellect - she is an observer, an inward thinker, a fly on the wall that bears witness to Beirut’s chaotic history over 50 years in her spacious, book-filled apartment. An outcast to her family and society at large, she skirts the expectations of others and manages to live her life as she wants, taking on long-term literary translation projects for her own pleasure, aloofly eavesdropping on her gossiping neighbors, and observing her beloved city from the shadows. The city of Beirut and its inhabitants also figure largely in the story. In many ways it is a love letter to Beirut, with all its flaws and conflict, danger and beauty.
Aaliya, as her name implies, is indeed "above it all;" she views her role in life as that of a casual spectator of events, both large and small. She is a resourceful and capable woman, able to stand up to bullying men in her life (from rioting looters to soldiers to her spiteful half-brothers), behavior which is contrary to her meek self-image. She is a fascinating study in contrasts - how she views herself and how she actually behaves and comports herself completely dissimilar.
Largely unsuccessful with human relationships, Aaliya acknowledges her difficulty in relating to others and is at peace with it. She retreats into the world of literature, meticulously translating great works into Arabic for her own pleasure and distraction. Translation is where she finds joy, industry, purpose, and identity. It gets her through war, personal loss, and loneliness. Her translation projects enable her to rise above the devastation that often surrounds her and provides an alternate focus - something upon which to concentrate to drown out the chaos of life in Beirut. "Sneaking off into literature to escape life" keeps her sane and functioning for fifty years.
Aaliya works through her feelings of uselessness and loneliness. She drops to the depths of depression and is buoyed with confidence and hope. She realizes that no matter how old one becomes, you can always be shattered by a single utterance from your own mother. At times she reflects on her unusual circumstances – no husband, no children, no occupation - and suffers moments of crushing, debilitating disappointment and defeat. In the end, circumstances force her to view her life from another perspective, and she experiences a revelation that is as uplifting for the reader as it must be for her.
Alameddine is a master storyteller – he has an innate ability to choose the perfect words to create beautiful sentences that perfectly relate subtle emotion. His characters and scenes are easy to envision and his stories reverberate with the reader for weeks – months – after a book is finished. While “An Unnecessary Woman” may at first glance appear to be depressing and heavy, I can assure you that it is not. Alameddine manages to discuss heady themes – loneliness, aging, despair – without bringing the reader down. I can’t even explain how he does this. The book is so gorgeously written, so evocative and so lush; I understood the characters intrinsically, yet I was not saddened while reading it. Aaliya is not all gloom and doom – she is a vibrant, thinking woman who ruminates on what is it to age, and that process naturally carries with it a host of emotions. She is matter-of-fact and very likeable – she’s the kind of person you never really get to know very well in real life, and here Alameddine has given us an invitation to explore every aspect of her beautiful, flawed psyche. I empathized with Aaliyah, understood her and respected her. Michael Chabon pronounced Alameddine a “daring” writer, and I have to agree. Taking on this subject, in today’s youth-obsessed climate, and making something so beautiful out of it is truly a feat. I am so glad that I read “An Unnecessary Woman” – it will stay with me for a very long time.