Nov 20

And The Winner of National Book Award For Best Novel Is….

… Phil Klay for Redeployment.

Very happy to be wrong about who would win the award.  My money was on Anthony Doerr.

As I stated in my review, the hype for Redeployment, which began in February 2014, is absolutely justified.  The collection features a number of powerful, confronting and at least one laugh out loud funny story that provide a unique perspective on the War in Iraq.  So congratulations to Phil Klay.  It’s also his first novel… so not a bad effort at all.

If you don’t trust my adoration of the book have a gander at Larry Nolen’s fine review.  It was his favourite on the shortlist.

Nov 20

Book Review: The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves

Because not every review can be 1,000 words long, I’m going to keep my remarks about The Absent Therapist nice and short.  Just like the novel.

Except it’s not really a novel, but a collection of disparate voices, a series of vignettes that jump from person to person.  It’s a bit like walking through a crowd of people, picking up fragments of what’s being discussed.  Sometimes you’ll circle back and pick up another snippet of the same conversation, but for the most part, all you’ll ever get is that one moment.

What’s remarkable about The Absent Therapist is how accessible it is.  While it’s obviously very experimental, and while there’s no story to take hold of, there’s a human and emotional quality to most of the vignettes that makes them immediately engaging, even if we only stay with them for a few minutes.  Take this as an example:

I don’t see the point of boxer shorts.  No support.  And the gap for your sticky wicket, why bother?  Too fiddly.  You end up groping about for the opening while your fellow man casts suspicious sideways glances.  And as my beloved put it, why poke your head out of the window when you can jump over the wall?

or this

Samuel and I heard this morning that the refugee camp in Tanzania containing our two sons, Amos and Zizwe, is to be closed.  The government is closing it and sending everyone in it back to Burundi, where we know that Amos and Zizwe will face great danger.  We think of them at this time, and we would ask that you say a silent prayer for them, too.

or this

If the vacuum were not so complete, the sound of every culture speeding by, from bacteria to late macro-sentient galactic entities, would be that of a cistern filling in the ears of the creator, the soft flare of emptiness nixed and life’s brief quelling of the silent storm, which rages on and on.

While these tonal shifts can, at times, be sudden and jarring, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his review, after awhile the prose just washes over you.  This doesn’t mean that The Absent Therapist is either disposable or just a blur of words.  Instead, as a glimpse into the human condition it’s a book best enjoyed as a meditative experience rather than picked apart.

Nov 19

And the Costa Book Award Finalists for 2014 have been announced

Apparently Costa makes fine coffee.  Also, apparently, they’re interested in promoting fine literature.  I can’t say much about their coffee because I don’t live in the UK, but I’m sure I’ll have a few things to say about the finalists of the First Novel and Novel awards.  Here are the shortlists for those two categories:

2014 Costa Novel Award shortlist

  • Neel Mukherjee for The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • Monique Roffey for House of Ashes (Simon and Schuster)
  • Ali Smith for How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Colm Toibin for Nora Webster (Viking)

2014 Costa First Novel Award shortlist

  • Carys Bray for A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson)
  • Mary Costello for Academy Street (Canongate)
  • Emma Healey for Elizabeth is Missing (Viking)
  • Simon Wroe for Chop Chop (Viking)

I’ve read the Mukherjee (which I liked) and the Smith (which I adored).  The novels by Toibin and Roffey are going to have to be extra special to knock the Smith off it’s very high pedestal.

I’m always excited by first novels, and from a quick skim of the four presented it looks like we have a varied bunch of books and voices.

Also, very nice to see the predominance of female writers on both lists.  Across all 20 books that were nominated the gender split was 50/50.  This is something that should be recognised and applauded.

So, roll on the books.  Except reviews to start appearing next week.

You can find the finalists in the other categories here.

Nov 18

Book Review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

Faye flies to Greece to give a two-day writing class.  Each chapter is made up of the conversations she has on her trip.  It’s also a book where the narrator barely makes an impression and what’s discussed mostly centres on broken relationships and the struggle of family life.

Should I read it?

Yes, but you might want to read the Kindle Sample first.  It’s a novel with no plot, no character arc and no dramatic tension.  There’s very little direct dialogue so at times there’s a rambling quality to the conversations.  But at it’s best the writing is striking and visceral and strangely intimate.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

We first learn the name of Outline‘s narrator, Faye, about 84% into the novel (at least according to my Kindle).  It’s a blink it or miss it moment.  In fact, I didn’t register her name until I saw it cropping up in reviews of the book.

Cusk’s Goldsmith Prize nominated novel isn’t so much a story as it is a fragment of time in the life of the narrator.  Faye has traveled to Greece to instruct a two-day writing class.  When she arrives in Athens she teaches her students, has dinner with friends and spends time on a boat with a man – referred throughout the book as “my neighbor” – who she met on the plane during the flight over.  For Faye, there’s no character arc, no dramatic tension, no epiphanies or revelations.  She fades out of the story just liked she faded in, with barely a ripple.

And yet Faye is anything but a passive character.  While she might reveal very little of herself, she is able to exert influence on those around her.  Within minutes of meeting Faye, “my neighbor” on the plane is providing intimate details about his failed marriages.  The people she visits and dines with in Greece – both stranger and friend – are quick to unburden themselves of their life story.  The students in her class, asked by Faye to write a story about an animal, provide stories that are personal and confronting.

The most striking of these is Penelope’s story about Mimi the dog.  Penelope initially buys the puppy for her children.  But as often happens, the responsibility for the dog quickly changes hands from the children back to Penelope.  Unfortunately Mimi is a naughty dog, making messes all over the house and shredding the furniture.  Because she now feels obligated to care for the dog, Penelope grows to hate Mimi (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):.

“One day when she has been barking all afternoon and the children had refused to take her out, and I discovered her in the sitting room chewing to shreds a new cushion I had just bought while the children stared, unconcerned, at the television, I found myself seized by an uncontrollable fury that I hit her.  The children were deeply shocked and angry.  They threw themselves on Mimi to protect her from me; they looked at me as though I were a monster.  But if I had become a monster, it was Mimi, I believed, who had made me one.”

The relationship between Penelope and Mimi fractures even further to the point that the dog runs away after an incident with a cake.  (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):

“I crossed the kitchen and grabbed her by the collar.  In front of my sister, I yanked her off the counter and sent her scrambling to the floor, and I proceeded to beat her while she yelped and struggled.  The two of us fought, me panting and seeking to punch her as hard as I could, she writhing and yelping, until finally she succeeded in pulling her head free of the collar.  She ran out of the kitchen, her claws scrabbling and sliding on the tiled floor, and into the hall, where the front door still stood open, and then out into the street, where she tore off up the pavement and disappeared.”

Penelope paused and placed her fingers gentle and then probingly to her temples.

This is visceral, gut wrenching stuff and at its best the conversations in Outline are raw and honest with a confessional vibe.  That said, not all of them are these compelling or interesting, and there are times when the ramblings of the people she’s talking to becomes tedious.  Given that Faye is only exposed to people who are either educated or wealthy (or both) they smack of the torturous ennui of the upper middle class (yes, I stole that phrase from the internet).

What’s also odd, though not necessarily a deal-breaker, is that we never really get a sense of Greece or Athens from these conversations.  There are some brief mentions of the protests that occurred after the announcement of the austerity measures in Greece, but generally this book could have taken place anywhere.  Even the descriptions of the boat ride with “my neighbour” have a blandness about them.  It might be that Cusk is making a point about the universality of a certain type of story, one that deals with relationships.  It’s also possible she didn’t want to exoticise the location.

Because it eschews the conventions of the traditional novel, Outline is not going to be for everyone.  But when the writing is firing on all cylinders it is confronting and visceral and strangely intimate.  Rather than be about the erasure of woman in literature, the novel explores the empowerment of silence, of listening and of allowing others to be heard.

Nov 16

Book Review: In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

It’s a conversation or confession between two close friends – Zafar and an unnamed narrator – who haven’t seen each other in six years.  It’s about colonialism, class, the Global Financial Crisis, maths (especially Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem) and the Bangladesh War of Liberation circa 1971.  It has a non-linear structure and there are no talky marks for the dialogue.  It was a finalist for this years Goldsmith Prize (it didn’t win).

Should I read it?

No.  The stuff about colonialism and class and the Bangladeshi uprising is fascinating, insightful and thought provoking.  The same can’t be said for Rahman’s treatment of woman which is appalling and unfortunately overwhelms the novel’s good bits.

The Full Review For Those Who Have Read The Book.

In my round-up of the National Book Award finalists I noted the stylistic tendency of telling stories out of order.  Having just finished Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know I think I’ve found the most extreme example of this non-linear approach.

On the face of it the novel has a straight-forward premise.  The narrator – an investment banker who’s facing the end of his marriage and his career, the latter due to the global financial crisis – comes home to discover an old friend waiting for him.  Zafar, who like the unnamed narrator is of South Asian descent, is a math’s prodigy who disappeared under mysterious circumstances six years previously.  Now penniless and bedraggled, he has come back to America to confess where he has been.  Or so it seems.

It’s a deliberate choice of the unnamed narrator not to provide us with a chronological order of his conversations with Zafar.  He admits this early on in the narrative saying,

I won’t deny that I have already altered his narrative, not the details of each episode, to be sure, nor the order in which things happened, but the order in which he recounted them.

While the narrator speculates that he’s re-ordered Zafar’s story so as to “put off the things that I myself fear to confront,” he concludes that as this is not a biography, but rather a “private and intimate connection between two people” then a chronological approach is not warranted.  But it becomes clear that both explanations are true.  After so many years apart, this three month conversation / confession / interrogation does bring the men closer.  But it’s a conversation that constantly circles and avoids the heart of the matter.

Zafar’s avoidance technique is to discuss a wide range of topics and move the narrative from place to place.  His story zips between Afghanistan, London, Paris, Islamabad, Bangladesh and New York.  In terms of topics he explores colonialism and post colonialism, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the GFC and the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 (the year Rahman was born).  And throughout it all, Zafar constantly refers to scientific papers or thought experiments or just bits of trivia that sometimes reinforce whatever point his making and sometimes are just there because both Zafar (and Rahman) thought they were interesting.  For example, it never occurred to me that trees transform the carbon part of carbon dioxide into wood.  So, in a sense, wood comes out of thin air.  Neat, isn’t it.

As a number of reviewers have pointed out, knowledge, whether it’s knowledge about how trees grow of near genocidal slaughter of Bangladeshi’s in 1971, is a key theme of the novel. In particular the power dynamics that comes with knowing stuff. Personally I was less interested in the theme than what’s actually being discussed. Zafar’s deep exploration of class, colonialism and Bangladesh post 1971 is genuinely interesting.  While this is a novel I have deep reservations about, and I’ll get to those in a second, the random, near chaotic nature of the discussion between Zafar and the narrator means it’s never boring. One striking aspect was the cultural scars left by British colonialism, especially in terms of class.  Sparked by Zafar’s dissection of the ruling classes both in the UK and the sub continent, the narrator – who unlike Zafar comes from a place of privilege and wealth – makes the following observation:

My grandfather spoke diplomatically, but his message was clear enough. I was going to marry beneath me, and he thought that this could cause problems. I loved my grandfather, but as I looked at the old soldier sitting in the armchair, the titan of Pakistani industry, I saw a man whose homes were crawling with respectful servants, a man who couldn’t bear “all this queuing one has to do in London and New York.”… His suggestion that the success of my parents’ marriage was founded on something like shared class status did trouble me. I knew that other families would rather a child marry outside, marry a Westerner—which always meant white—than marry a Pakistani of lower class or birth. But weren’t they other families, not mine?

Rahman also critiques how post colonialism has effected his journey as a novelists.  At one point the unmanned narrator suggests that Zafar write down his story, about his life, about what happened in Bangladesh.  Zafar dismisses the idea saying sarcastically,

“You’re right.  What the world needs now is answers to all its questions about Bangladeshi history.  And it especially needs to hear these answers from me, an alien in his native land and interloper amongst his hosts, because I know so much about Bangladesh.  I’m a bloody authority, that’s what I am, a leading international luminary on the history of Bangladesh.”

And when the narrator follows this up with, “what about writing for a Western audience,” Zafar quotes Naipaul who said that:

“Indian literature written in English is astonishing because nowhere in history has a literature been produced that is written by one people about the same people but for another people to read, a literature sustained by a market abroad, the book readers of the West.”

It’s powerful stuff, partly because Rahman is shining the torch on his own endeavor and essentially questioning it’s worth and partly because it raises all sorts of questions about appropriation and this offensive notion of having to dumb down complex cultural and political issues to the very people who caused them in the first place.

However, it’s when Zafar eventually broaches the heart of the matter that the book falters.  Throughout the novel reference has been made to Zafar’s ex-fiance Emily Hampton-Wyvern.  As the hyphenated surname suggests, Emily comes from wealth and privilege.  Emily and Zafar become a couple after they’re introduced at a party by the narrator (though we later find out that Zafar was aware of Emily before they met).  Their relationship is strained from the outset.  Emily is aloof, detached from her emotions and often treats Zafar as a pet to show off to her friend rather than a real person.  Zafar also grows increasingly jealous as Emily spends more of her time with other people.  On a couple of occasions the narrator asks Zafar what he saw in Emily.  Zafar mentions something about being attracted to her surname and her position of privilege.  Oh, and the sex.  It’s all very unsatisfying.

Zafar’s confusion and frustration and jealousy comes to a head when he commits himself to psych award.  While there, Emily never visits.  Instead, she has a brief affair with the narrator, becomes pregnant, convinces Zafar, once he’s left the ward that the baby is his, and just as Zafar is becoming a bit starry eyed at the idea of being a father, she aborts the pregnancy.  Of course, Zafar and the narrator focus on the betrayal of the affair – that’s one of two revelation that this novel has been leading too.

The second revelation is that Zafar raped Emily while they were both in Afghanistan in 2002.

There’s more then a misogynistic whiff to Zafar (and Rahman’s) treatment of Emily.  We only ever see Emily through Zafar’s eyes (and briefly the eyes of the narrator who knew her when they were young) and his description of a cold, aloof, calculating woman who is incapable of emotional engagement but is great in the sack actively dehumanizes her.  As Hannah Harris Green states in her lengthy, but excellent review of the novel for the LA Review of Books:

We are never given evidence that Emily has feelings or thoughts of any depth. She is introduced as almost a non-entity. The first time Zafar sees her, she is rehearsing the violin in a church, and he is struck by how profoundly she has failed to move him with her playing. Her main two emotional states seem to be envy and annoyance. She never smiles out of genuine feeling, only with some ulterior motive in mind. Zafar is smarter than she is, and she resents him for it. When they arrange to meet, she often shows up hours late.

I don’t believe Rahman is crass enough to want us to think that Emily deserved to be raped due to her betrayal.  But you can’t help but feel that way given how she’s been depicted, how we never get her side of the story and how in the last third of the novel she becomes the focus of Zafar’s hatred.  And yes, I get that in 1971 Bengali woman were dehumanized and sexually assaulted by Pakistani soldiers, and I get that Zafar is a product of this and I get the sad, tragic irony that a man appalled by what happened to his people would end up committing the same act to the woman he supposedly loved.  Yes, all those boxes were ticked.  But it doesn’t change the fact that Rahman asks us to focus on the perpetrator – Zafar – and not the victim.,  That there’s no room in his lengthy novel for the victim to be heard.

The title, In The Light of What We Know, suggests that we’re not going to be given the full story, that knowledge is going to be withheld.  But, in the case of Emily, its’ not so much that information has been held back but that there’s no attempt by Rahman or his characters to cast Emily as anything but a cipher, a vessel for some of the larger themes of the novel.  The real tragedy here is that a novel so brilliantly insightful about class and colonialism, is so appalling in its treatment of women.

Nov 13

And the Winner of the Goldsmith Prize is…

… Ali Smith for How To Be Both.

I haven’t read all the finalists of the Prize (though expect to see reviews in the coming weeks), but having finished all but two I can say I’m overjoyed with this result.  How To Be Both is inventive and playful both with its characters and the way it’s been structured (two linked novellas that can be read in any order).  It’s about art and art appreciation, but also incorporates themes about gender and dealing with grief.  And it’s a fantasy novel (sort of) that wouldn’t look out of place on a Shirley Jackson or World Fantasy ballot.

So congratulations to Ali Smith.  A very well deserved win.

Nov 12

And The Winner of The World Fantasy Award is…

… Sofia Samatar with Stranger in Olondria.

In my round-up of the award I picked Neil Gaiman as the winner and I’m glad to have been proven wrong.  Stranger in Olondria is wonderful novel, with lush prose and a fascinating setting.  You can read my review of it here.  Congratulations to Sofia and all the other category winners.

Nov 11

Who Will Win The National Book Award?

Click on the link for my review of each of the finalists:

While I’d love to see Station Eleven win, I can’t see it happening.  For me it’s a toss-up between All The Light We Cannot See and Lila.  The Doerr screams award winner with its lyrical writing, it unconventional love story and its wartime setting.  I had major issues with the book but I can’t pretend that it’s not the sort of sweeping, epic, tear jerking novel that usually ends up with a movie deal and a trophy.  I’d be surprised if it didn’t take out the award.

Lila, though, is a good contender.  I might not have heard of Marilynne Robinson, but critics and judges in the US most certainly have.  She’s previously won a Pulitzer and Orange Prize and was a National Book Award finalist for Home.  Given her form, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her add the National Book Award to her trophy cabinet.

That said, if I have to choose I think the winner will be All The Light We Cannot See.  Of course I’d like to see one of the other three novels – Station Eleven, An Unnecessary Woman and  Redeployment – trump the Doerr, but I can’t see it happening.

While I have my reservations about All The Light We Cannot See and Lila, I’d still rate this as a strong shortlist.  There isn’t a single theme that links all the novel (which for the sake of variety is possibly a good thing) but structurally they have similarities.  The four novels take a non-linear approach to story-telling with heavy use of flashbacks.  What used to be an innovation, telling stories out-of-order and a blurry delineation between the past and present, is now just another tool in the writer’s kit.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I do wonder whether this a new trend or something that’s been trending for some time.  Others more versed with the literary scene will have a better idea.

What I can say with some confidence is how rarely a non-linear structure is used by genre writers.  This years Hugo winner, Ancillary Justice, borrowed the non-linear approach for its first half, but didn’t sustain the effect.  That, however, is the only example I can think of based on the forty or so genre books I’ve read this year.  Which does play into the idea that genre writing, in the main, is conservative in its content and stylistic approach.  It’s something I’ll keep a note of as I read through next years batch of award listed books.

Nov 10

Book Review – Redeployment by Phil Klay

Of the novels that were nominated for the National Book Award, Phil Klay’s Redeployment was the only one I was aware of.  My recognition of the book came from two sources: a February 2014 review from Michiko Kakutani who called the collection “gritty, unsparing and fiercely observed,” and an interview in March with Pamela Paul from Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast where Klay spoke intelligently about writing the book and his experiences as a Marine during the Iraq War.  Since then, Klay’s collection of war stories has been on my virtual bookshelf though I’ve never had the itch to read it.  In-spite of the hype, Kakutani’s review is one of many that has praised the collection, I couldn’t see how Redeployment was going to be anything more than a book that kept repeating the same two messages: War is Bad.  Killing people Fucks You Up.

Which just goes to show how narrow-minded and prejudiced I can be.

In actual fact, Klay achieves the remarkable feat of writing a collection of war stories that are not only not repetitive but somehow straddle the line between pro and anti-war sentiment.  The Killing people Fucks You Up message is evident throughout the collection, such as in stories like ‘After Action Report’ and ‘Prayer In The Furnace’ but it never feels gratuitous or manipulative.  There’s a distinct lack of sensationalism present.

Klay keeps the collection fresh by varying both the subjects and point of view characters.  We have stories told through the eyes of Marine who’ve just started their deployment (After Action Report) and those who are heading off home (Redeployment).  Marines whose jobs are to retrieve the dead from the battlefield (Bodies) and Marines who spend the war shouting insults to the insurgents aimed at pissing them off (Psychological Operations).  Then there’s the story told by a Chaplain who ministers to the men and their guilt (Prayer In The Furnace) and the bureaucrat who comes to Iraq thinking he’s going to make things better (Money As a Weapons System).  We even have a prose poem told mostly in military acronyms (OIF).

In a collection that features a number of magnificent stories, the two strongest pieces are ‘Prayer In The Furnace’ and ‘Money As a Weapons System’.

‘Prayer In The Furnace’ is narrated by a military chaplain stationed in Ramadi.  He becomes aware that one of the units he ministers too is falling apart due to recent losses.  The chaplain is disturbed that the Marines in this Unit have started to view everyone in Ramadi as an insurgent.

“What do we do?” Haupert was saying to the loose assembly of 2nd Platoon members. “We come here, we say, We’ll give you electricity. If you work with us. We’ll fix your sewage system. If you work with us. We’ll provide you security. If you work with us. But no better friend, no worse enemy. If you fuck with us, you will live in shit. And they’re like, Okay, we’ll live in shit.” He pointed off to the direction of the city, then swatted with his hand, as if at an insect. “Fuck them,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the chaplain abhors the idea that each Iraqi is the enemy, and he suggests to the men that maybe they should start seeing the humanity in the people they are here to protect.  This doesn’t go done well with his congregants, not because each Marine is an evil killing machine, but because fighting in an enclosed environment like the streets of Ramadi means that bad shit will happen.  You can follow standard operating procedure and civilians will still die.  It’s confronting stuff, both for the chaplain and the reader.  And while it does beg the question that not sending men to war means they don’t need to deal with impossible moral situations, the power of the story comes from the self-awareness that these Marines exhibit, this understanding that war might make you insane, that you might hate every Iraqi, but that doesn’t mean you become a monster.

‘Money As A Weapons System’ not only provides the collection with a story from a perspective other than a marine or army personnel, it’s also laugh out loud funny.  The narrator is a US State Official sent to Iraq with the mission statement of making lives better for the people.  His plan is to get a water treatment plant, that’s been lying fallow for some time, up and running.  But he’s immediately faced with the reality of internal politics (the water treatment plan will help a Sunni community which angers the Shi’ite residents) and external politics (pleasing an influential congressman who’d rather see photos of the kids playing baseball in the equipment he donated).  It’s mind-boggling stuff, incompetent and hilarious and most disturbing of all very likely reflective of what actually happened on the ground.

The story also has some corker lines:

Nobody wants to do a year in Iraq and come back with nothing but stories about the soft-serve ice-cream machine at the embassy cafeteria.

some well observed and funny dialogue

“Why do they call you the Professor?” I asked him.
“Because I was a professor,” he said, taking off his glasses and rubbing them as if to emphasize the point, “before you came and destroyed this country.”
We were getting off to an awkward start. “You know,” I said, “when this all started I opposed the war. . . .”
“You have baked Iraq like a cake,” he said, “and given it to Iran to eat.”

and the sort of cynical perspective that’s funny because it’s true.

Bob folded his arms and looked me over. He pointed to the opposite wall, where we had a poster outlining the LOEs. “Give someone a job. That’s economic improvement. Give women a job. That’s women’s empowerment. Give a widow a job. That’s aiding disenfranchised populations. Three LOEs in one project. Widow projects are gold. With the council supporting it, we can say it’s an Iraqi-led project. And it’ll cost under twenty-five thousand dollars, so the funding will sail through.”

The hype given to Redeployment is warranted.  Klay expertly guides us through the Iraqi conflict providing us with viewpoints and perspectives that provide a variety of insights into the make-up of this terrible conflict.  It didn’t change my feelings towards the Iraq war, I still think it was misguided and a complete waste of life and potential, but due to Phil Klay I now have a greater appreciation of what the war meant and still means for those who experienced it.

Nov 06

Book Review: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Rabih Alameddine’s National Book Award nominated novel, An Unnecessary Woman, begins with a beguiling opening sentence:

You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration.

Blue hair and two glasses of wine hints at comedy shenanigans and New York style neuroses.  What we get, though, is a cynical and at times heartbreaking novel of a woman, now 72 years old, who lives an almost hermit like existence in an apartment in Beirut.  From a young age Aaliyah fell in love with all things literature, and while this activity wasn’t viewed kindly by her family, she obtained a low paying job at a bookstore near her apartment.  With the store now closed, Aaliyah maintains her sanity by translating novels from great European writers into Arabic.

Like LilaAn Unnecessary Woman shifts without hesitation or warning between Aaliyah’s current situation and her early life in Beirut.  It’s clear from the outset that she’s always been an outsider.  Her love of books and language puts her at odds with a culture that expects woman to marry and bear children at a young age.  Aliyah does marry but her husband, while not abusive, isn’t the most agreeable man and their divorce further isolates Aaliyah from her family and her community.

However, Aaliyah isn’t entirely alone.  Through her ex-husband’s family, she meets Hannah, her “almost sister in law” and only friend.  It’s Hannah who convinces one of her relatives to employ Aaliyah in his bookstore.  And it’s through the bookstore that Aaliyah meets Ahmad, a boy who holds the same fascination for literature that she does.  Unfortunately both relationships end in tragedy.  Hannah commits suicide and Ahmad essentially becomes a torturer for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

As a result of Hannah’s death, coupled with the coming of the Lebanese civil war and constant pressure from her family to leave her relatively large apartment, books become Aaliyah’s

milk and honey. I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like “Books are the air I breathe,” or, worse, “Life is meaningless without literature,” all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable. Compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.

Aaliyah’s near religious obsession for the written word allows Alameddine to both celebrate literature (not just the Western cannon) while using it as a metaphor for her isolation.  This is underlined by Aaliyah’s translations of great European novels into Arabic.  What’s striking and key to her state of mind is that at the conclusion of a project she stores the translation away “in a box and the box in the bathroom.”

Aaliyah provides a number of rationalizations as to why her work ends up in the maid’s bathroom.  She argues that to translate a Russian novel, for example, she’s required to rely on English and French translations of the same work.  A copy of a copy is never the same quality.  At a more cynical and bitter level she states that,

My translation activity is useless. Yet I persist. The world goes on whether I do what I do. Whether we find Walter Benjamin’s lost suitcase, civilization will march forward and backward, people will trot the globe, wars will rage, lunches will be served. Whether anyone reads Pessoa. None of this art business is of any consequence. It is mere folly.

These observations are as much a commentary on her work as they are on her life as and this bitter sense of fatalism pervades the novel making it difficult to feel any sympathy for Aaliyah. But then she’s not asking for our sympathy.  She’s a 72 year old woman who has spent the last 42 years actively withdrawing from everything around her.

And maybe if Aaliyah lived in America or Australia, she could disappear forever.  But she lives in Beirut a city that’s constantly on the verge of a new Civil War or an incursion from Israel.  And if it’s not Palestinian fighters kicking down her door, it’s her half brother trying to dump Aaliyah’s ailing mother in her apartment.  This all culminates in a devastating moment where a burst water pipe threatens to destroy Aaliyah’s hard work.

Throughout these intrusions, Aaliyah’s finds assistance from an unlikely source, her landlord Fadia and Fadia’s two girlfriends who also live in the apartment block.  This relationship between the four woman, which grows slowly but gradually, thankfully undercuts much of Aaliyah’s bitterness, giving the novel a much needed sense of humour and heart.

I was critical of Marilynne Robinson for not giving her main protagonist, Lila, the opportunity to make a choice – to stay in Gilead or to leave.  Alameddine does not make the same mistake.  In a scene that earns its emotional impact, Aaliyah, as a result of the incident with the water pipe, makes a fundamental decision in how she intends to approach her translations in the future.  In the context of world history and the goings on of everyday life in the city of Beirut, it’s a choice of little consequence.  Mere folly you might say.  And yet for Aaliyah it is the entire world.  It’s an almost sentimental ending to a novel that considers what it truly means to have a meaningful life, to be a necessary person.

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