An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine
“I like outsiders,” Aaliya Sohbi tells us, “phantoms wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived.” The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, is herself an outsider, a reclusive, seventy-two-year-old bibliophile who lives alone in the Beirut apartment she’s inhabited since the fifties. Surrounded by her books and her treasured Chopin recordings, she’s spent the bulk of her life translating the books she loves into Arabic, purely out of the pleasure of doing so, and as a result, has stacks of translation manuscripts she has no desire for anyone to read. Her reading life, rich with fiction and philosophy by Sebald, Coetzee, Marías, Pessoa, Camus, and Chekhov, exists apart from, even cloistered from, the outside world.
As Aaliya muses on literature, philosophy, and art, she relates her childhood and youth growing up in Beirut, and in the process, shows us, as Colm Toibin wrote, a “mind at play…filled with intelligence, sharpness, and strange memories and regrets.” An Unnecessary Woman is Alameddine’s fifth book—his sixth, a novel, The Angel of History was released in 2016. Reviewing An Unnecessary Woman in The Guardian, Claire Messud called the novel, “in its strangeness, a genuine literary pleasure: a complicated one.” Newsday named it one of the best books of 2014, “an antidote to literary blandness.”
Raised in Beirut, Aaliya is the fatherless daughter of her mother’s first, brief marriage, and after her mother’s remarriage, the eldest to her five half-siblings. She grows up unwanted, and subsequently married off at a young age to a man she abhors—though soon after is liberated through divorce when he leaves her for another woman. That’s fine with Aaliya, she is free to live her life as she pleases—given she’s now an object of scorn and no one cares—and at twenty takes a job in a bookstore owned by a relation of her dearest friend, Hannah. She’ll work there for fifty years, where she encounters both her first serious love, an enigmatic reader, Ahmad, and serious literature, of which she reads insatiably: the poetry of Donne and Cavafy, Fear of Flying, along with Calvino and Conrad and Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.
Literature is as much a subject of the novel as Aaliya’s story. Yet as the novel looks at her life, there’s a sustained yearning, the question of her unfinished heart. The questions Aaliya asks herself about her life, and considers through the lens of her relationship to books, to thought and history, form the center of the novel. These considerations can be as fundamental as the childhood guidance she’s missed—“If only I had someone to tell me every now and then, ‘Aaliya, you must listen to Scarlatti’s sonatas, fils, not pere’”— and as complicated as the longing for a homeland: “I love the idea of a homeland, but not the actual return to one.”
The delicate plot line Alameddine inserts into Aaliya’s extended reflection operates on narrow thread: a visit by her half-siblings, who bring her mother along hoping to leave her with Aaliya. “‘She belongs to you now,’ my half-brother said.” The old woman begins to scream, and Aaliya refuses, yet the family persists, until three graces intervene, Aaliya’s neighbors, friends, and confidantes, Fadia, Joumana, and Marie-Therese. The unfinished history between mother and daughter makes up the slender thread of plot, bringing the needed externality to support Aaliya’s sustained reflection.
In his essay “Chronicling Life’s White Machine,” writer Adam O’Fallon Price writes, “Third-person assumes the right to speak for, to inhabit, other characters than oneself, and to manipulate these characters, imbuing the text with a unitary consciousness; first-person, no matter the degree of artifice, implies a bounded consciousness, the disconnection between people.” The pleasure of the first-person voice of Aaliya is that it’s beautifully bounded within her consciousness, and makes a rich tapestry on which to hang the internal life of a private and an unforgettable character.