An Unnecessary Womanby Rabih Alameddine
From the author of the international bestseller The Hakawati comes an enchanting story of a book-loving, obsessive, seventy-two-year-old “unnecessary” woman with a past shaped by the Lebanese Civil War.
From the author of the international bestseller The Hakawati comes an enchanting story of a book-loving, obsessive, seventy-two-year-old “unnecessary” woman with a past shaped by the Lebanese Civil War.
Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction
One of the Middle East’s most celebrated voices, Rabih Alameddine follows his bestseller, The Hakawati, with a heartrending novel that celebrates the singular life of an obsessive introvert, revealing Beirut’s beauties and horrors along the way.
Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s “unnecessary appendage.” Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated over her lifetime have never been read–by anyone. After overhearing her neighbors, “the three witches,” discussing her too-white hair, Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair too blue.
In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Colorful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s own volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.
A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the prodigiously gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of one woman’s life in the Middle East.
“An Unnecessary Woman is a meditation on, among other things, aging, politics, literature, loneliness, grief and resilience. If there are flaws to this beautiful and absorbing novel, they are not readily apparent.” —New York Times
“[I]rresistible” [the author] offers winningly unrestricted access to the thoughts of his affectionate, urbane, vulnerable and fractiously opinionated heroine. Aaliya says that when she reads, she tries to ‘let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book.’ Mr. Alameddine’s portrayal of a life devoted to the intellect is so candid and human that, for a time, readers can forget that any such barrier exists.” —Wall Street Journal
“Alameddine”has conjured a beguiling narrator in his engaging novel, a woman who is, like her city, hard to read, hard to take, hard to know and, ultimately, passionately complex.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] opaque self-portrait of an utterly beguiling misanthrope” Aaliya notes that: ‘reading a fine book for the first time is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan.’ You don’t have to fast first (in fact it helps to have gorged on the books that Aaliya translates and adores) in order to savor Alameddine’s succulent fiction.” —Steven G. Kellman, The Boston Globe
“You can’t help but love this character.” —Arun Rath, NPR’s All Things Considered
“A restlessly intelligent novel built around an unforgettable character”a novel full of elegant, poetic sentences.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“I can’t remember the last time I was so gripped simply by a novel’s voice. Alameddine makes it clear that a sheltered life is not necessarily a shuttered one. Aaliya is thoughtful, she’s complex, she’s humorous and critical.” —NPR.com
“[A] powerful intellectual portrait of a reader who is misread . . . a meditation on being and literature, written by someone with a passionate love of language and the power of words to compose interior worlds. It’s about how, and by what means, we survive. About how, in the end, what is hollow and unneeded becomes full, essential and enduring.” —Earl Pike, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Beautiful writing . . . sharp, smart and often sardonic . . . an homage to literature.” —Fran Hawthorne, The National
“Reading An Unnecessary Woman is about listening to a voice—Aaliya’s—not cantering through a plot, although powerful events do occur, both in the present and in memory . . . a fun, and often funny, book . . . rich in quirky metaphors . . . An Unnecessary Woman is not a game, though; it is a grave, powerful book. It is the hour-by-hour study of a woman who is struggling for dignity with every breath . . . The meaning of human dignity is perhaps the great theme of literature, and Alameddine takes it on in every page of this extraordinary book.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“Playful, brainy and full of zest, An Unnecessary Woman is an antidote to literary blandness.” —Newsday
“Aaliya is a formidable character . . . When An Unnecessary Woman offers her what she regards as the corniest of conceits—a redemption arc—it’s a delight to see her take it.” —Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor
“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, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“An intimate, melancholy and superb tour de force . . . Alameddine’s storytelling is rich with a bookish humor that’s accessible without being condescending. A gemlike and surprisingly lively study of an interior life.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Studded with quotations and succinct observations, this remarkable novel by Alameddine is a paean to fiction, poetry, and female friendship. Dip into it, make a reading list from it, or simply bask in its sharp, smart prose.” —Michele Leber, Booklist (starred review)
“Alameddine’s most glorious passages are those that simply relate Aalyia’s thoughts, which read like tiny, wonderful essays. A central concern of the book is the nature of the desire of artistic creators for their work to matter, which the author treats with philosophical suspicion. In the end, Aalyia’s epiphany is joyful and freeing.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Acclaimed author Alameddine (The Hakawati) here relates the internal struggles of a solitary, elderly woman with a passion for books . . . Aaliya’s life may seem like a burden or even ‘unnecessary’ to others since she is divorced and childless, but her humor and passion for literature bring tremendous richness to her day-to-day life–and to the reader’s . . . Though set in the Middle East, this book is refreshingly free of today’s geopolitical hot-button issues. A delightful story for true bibliophiles, full of humanity and compassion.” —Library Journal
“Around and about the central narrative, like tributaries, flow stories of those people Aaliyah has known . . . the city of Beirut itself is a character, collapsing, reshaping, renewing, modernizing as Aaliyah herself grows old. Aaliyah’s mordant wit is lit by Alameddine’s exquisite turns of phrase . . . An Unnecessary Woman is a story of innumerable things. It is a tale of blue hair and the war of attrition that comes with age, of loneliness and grief, most of all of resilience, of the courage it takes to survive, stay sane and continue to see beauty. Read it once, read it twice, read other books for a decade or so, and then pick it up and read it anew. This one’s a keeper.” —Aminatta Forna, The Independent (UK)
“[W]hat Alameddine offers here, most of all, is a window into the lives of Beiruti women . . . Aaliya, literary devotee, may consider herself ‘unnecessary’—but the novel proves very necessary indeed.” —Lambda
“A novel that manages to be both quiet and voluptuous, driven by a madcap intimacy that thoroughly resists all things ‘cute’ or ‘exotic.’” —Dwyer Murphy, Guernica
“Beautiful . . . despite [Aaliya’s] constant claims that she is unlovable it takes only a few pages of reading to realize this isn’t true—she’s extraordinary, even beguiling. She’s tough, opinionated, and deeply caring, but also passive, insecure, and fearful. Complex, in other words, and real. The novel is both intimate and expansive, opening out into the world of politics and war even as it’s rooted in the thoughts of this unnecessary, fascinating person.” —Aruna D’Souza, Riffle.com
“Aaliya is intelligent, acerbic and funny, one of those rare characters who becomes more real to readers than the people around them, and will remain will them for a long time.” —The Daily Star (Lebanon)
“Aaliya’s reminiscences make up ‘her total globe, her entire world.’ In her, we see that feminism resists categorization and is not defined by the West. Aaliyah embodies the self-determination of both the feminist and the writer, and exhibits vulnerability, determination and wisdom. But, most important, it is in the honesty of Aaliyah’s narration that we see the passion of the modern woman, full of knowledge and a vibrant interior world.” —Sarah Dempster, The Australian
“At once a sublime encomium to the art of reading well, where the pleasures of the text are called to the task of self-making, the novel is also a gentle appeal against loftiness. For every canonical seduction, there is pause for the folly of disconnection, the vanity of denial. In Alameddine’s examination of memory, translation and freedom, there is an insistence that life is more than the cruel absurdities of a reductive reality. An Unnecessary Woman charms with expressive cynicism and inadvertent optimism, shining a unique light on the art of storytelling.” —Readings (Australia)
“This impossibly beautiful funny novel is a window into another world. Rabih Alameddine has drawn a fierce and passionate character whose love of life and literature draws the reader into her labyrinthine story. An Unneccessary Woman is for anyone who has an enduring love affair with books, the desire to understand the human condition or a glimpse into the rich and exotic straddling of life that the city of Beirut epitomises.” —The Hoopla.com (Australia)
“An Unnecessary Woman dramatizes a wonderful mind at play. The mind belongs to the protagonist, and it is filled with intelligence, sharpness and strange memories and regrets. But, as in the work of Calvino and Borges, the mind is also that of the writer, the arch-creator. His tone is ironic and knowing; he is fascinated by the relationship between life and books. He is a great phrase-maker and a brilliant writer of sentences. And over all this fiercely original act of creation is the sky of Beirut throwing down a light which is both comic and tragic, alert to its own history and to its mythology, guarding over human frailty and the idea of the written word with love and wit and understanding and a rare sort of wisdom.” —Colm Toibin
“The extraordinary if ‘unnecessary’ woman at the center of this magnificent novel built into my heart a sediment of life lived in reverse, through wisdom, epiphany, and regret. This woman—Aaliya is her name—for all her sly and unassuming modesty, is a stupendous center of consciousness. She understands time, and folly, and is wonderfully comic. She has read everything under the sun (as has her creator, Alameddine), and as a polyglot mind of an old world Beirut, she reminds us that storehouses of culture, of literature, of memory, are very fragile things indeed. They exist, shimmering, as chimeras, in the mind of Aaliya, who I am so happy to feel I now know. Her particularity, both tragic and lightly clever, might just stay with me forever.” —Rachel Kushner
“There are many ways to break someone’s heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life. With both tender care and surgical exactness, An Unnecessary Woman leads us away from the commonplace and the mundane to enter a world made of love for words, wisdom, and memories. No words can express my gratitude for this book.” —Yiyun Li
“With An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine has accomplished something astonishing: a novel that is at once expansive and intimate, quiet and full of feeling. Aaliya is one of the more memorable characters in contemporary fiction, and every page of this extraordinary novel demands to be savored and re-read.” —Daniel Alarcón
“An Unnecessary Woman offers a testament to the saving virtue of literature and an unforgettable protagonist . . . . Alameddine maintains a steady electric current between past and present, fantasy and reality.” —D Repubblica (Italy)
“A contemporary fable about passion: passion for literature and the passions of love.” —L’Unita (Italy)
“Passion is the key to this book, which has already been hailed as a masterpiece: passion for a man, and passion for books.” —Oggi (Italy)
Finalist for the National Book Award
Washington Post Top 50 Fiction Books of 2014
Kirkus Best Books of 2014
NPR Best Books of 2014
Amazon 100 Best Books of 2014
The Christian Science Monitor Top 10 Fiction Books of 2014
Allow me to offer a mild defense for being distracted. At the end of the year, before I begin a new project, I read the translation I’ve completed. I do minor final corrections, set the pages in order, and place them in the box. This is part of the ritual, which includes imbibing two glasses of red wine. I’ll also admit that the last reading allows me to pat myself on the back, to congratulate myself on completing the project. This year, I translated the superb novel Austerlitz, my second translation of W. G. Sebald. I was reading it today, and for some reason, probably the protagonist’s unrequited despair, I couldn’t stop thinking of Hannah, I couldn’t, as if the novel, or my Arabic translation of it, was an inductor into Hannah’s world.
Remembering Hannah, my one intimate, is never easy. I still see her before me at the kitchen table, her plate wiped clean of food, her right cheek resting on the palm of her hand, head tilted slightly, listening, offering that rarest of gifts, her unequivocal attention. My voice had no home until her.
During my seventy-two years, she was the one person I cared for; the one I told too much–boasts, hates, and joys, cruel disappointments, all jumbled together. I no longer think of her as often as I used to, but she appears in my thoughts every now and then. The traces of Hannah on me are indelible. Percolating remembrances, red wine, and an old woman’s shampoo: mix well and wind up with blue hair.
1. Aaliya says that her dearest friend Hannah “wrote of her need to be loved, to be desired, as a ravenous monster with an exigent appetite living in a black hole within” (p. 122). The two friends had many similarities (they were both often lonely, they both sought escape in stories, and they both struggled with insomnia), but do they both represent the same kind of person that Fadia describes when she says: “There are two kinds of people in this world: people who want to be desired, and people who want to be desired so much that they pretend they don’t” (p. 286)?
2. At one point in An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya finds herself wondering if she’s grown too old for Beirut (p. 90). Could the novel have been set anywhere else other than Beirut? Aaliya says that the city is “too random” and that she doesn’t feel in charge of her life for it (p. 53). How does her excessive reading habit affect Aaliya’s sense of control and order?
3. In Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, the title’s question is posed from a mother to her lesbian daughter. Aaliya, whose family repeatedly insists that she just be “normal,” finds herself in a similar situation (p. 113), seeing as Aaliya is a character who seeks specialness time and time again. In what ways does she do this?
4. Aaliya talks about the psychological nature of some novels that are too concerned with explaining causation, or why characters do the things that they do. She refers to the day that her brother brought her mother to Aaliya’s doorstep: “If this were a novel, you would be able to figure out why my mother screamed” (p. 96). But Aaliya never does learn why her mother screamed. Discuss this bit of meta-commentary on the novel’s psychological function. What do novels that avoid causation narratives accomplish in their place?
5. After Aaliya was engaged to be married and taken out of school, she explains, ‘my only hope was to fake my way to an education” (p. 209). In what ways did she manage her self-education?
6. When Aaliya’s translation manuscripts are ruined in the apartment flood, how would you describe the responses of Aaliya’s neighbors—the women she refers to as the “witches”? Were you surprised by their responses to her distress? What does this scene at the end of the novel reveal about female friendship?
7. Given that Aaliya is someone who spends most of her time reading fiction—which consists of events that do not happen and characters who do not exist–does that explain why Aaliya believes “no nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed” (p. 155)? And is that somehow related to her thought that people aren’t defined by what they do in life, so much as what they do not do?
8. On page 106, Aaliya confesses what she suspects her readers realized long before: that she’s never actually tried to publish any of her thirty-seven translated manuscripts. When she’s finished translating a book, she sets it aside, and doesn’t show it to anybody: “I create and crate!” Does Aaliya’s anonymity as a translator really makes her an “unnecessary” woman in her eyes? What are some of the other ways that the book suggests that Aaliya could be considered an “unnecessary woman”?
9. Aaliya tells the story of a Polish Gestapo officer who spared artist and writer Bruno Schulz because he decided that Schulz was “no ordinary Jew, but a necessary one” (p. 183). What does the anecdote imply about art’s role during wartime? What does Aaliya believe art is capable of?
10. Two of Aaliya’s favorite books are W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Ota Pavel’s How I Came to Know Fish. “What I love about them is that they deal with the Holocaust by looking at it indirectly . . . Both refuse to soil grief with sentimentalism, and so they are devastating” (p. 203). Later, Aaliya worries that she is becoming sentimental in her old age. Do you think that her interior observations throughout the novel err on sentiment? Or are they more defined by other qualities?
11. Aaliya is careful to emphasize how many Jewish artists, writers, and thinkers she enjoys, before she tells her readers, “Like many nation-states, including its sister pygmy state Lebanon, Israel is an abomination” (p. 195). Discuss Aaliya’s stance on the state of Israel, as a woman who has lived her entire life in Lebanon over a period of time in which both countries have seen war.
12. Aaliya has an active, nearly irrepressible sense of humor. Can you cite specific instances? Is her humor something that was supposed to distinguish her from her ill-fated friend Hannah?
13. What roles did Ahmad play in Aaliya’s life? Why does he leave the bookstore and Beirut? Compare and contrast him to the other male characters in the story, such as Aaliya’s “impotent insect” of a husband, Aaliya’s half brother, or Hannah’s lieutenant.
14. All of Aaliya’s thirty-seven translations have been works already translated from their original languages–she only does “translations of translations.” But at the end of the novel, Aaliya decides she’s ready to undertake her own translations of books initially written in French or English. What does this change say about Aaliya? At the end of the novel, she’s trying to decide between one novel written in English, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and the French Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Which do you think she will choose? What will her choice between the two books mean?
15. “Reading a fine book for the first time is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan” (p. 117). What books have given you that shot of joy, a sensuous pleasure you can taste?
16. Aaliya notes at a few different instances in the novel that she avoids stories that culminate in an epiphany. “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.” (p. 148). Does An Unnecessary Woman end with an epiphany?< Suggestions for Further Reading: The Accident by Ismail Kadare; A Girl Made of Dust by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi; Microcosms by Claudio Magris; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani; Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson; Ethics by Baruch Spinoza; Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi; The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald; How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel; Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar; Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee; The Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter; Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino