Book Reviews
5:50 pm
Tue February 4, 2014

A Widow's Quiet Life Leaves Room For Sex, Guns And Literature

Originally published on Tue February 4, 2014 8:00 pm

As of last week, what I knew about Beirut could fit in a sandwich bag. What I knew about being a blue-haired, 72-year-old woman, never mind a widow and a shut-in, was a whole lot less. Now, one week later, I'm much more informed, and I'm happy to encourage you to become so, too.

An Unnecessary Woman is the latest novel from Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. It's a portrait of an isolated woman with a dazzling mind as she comes to grips with getting old. Alameddine's narrator is named Aaliya. She lives alone in Beirut, in the apartment she used to share with her husband before they divorced. Previously she ran a bookstore. Now she stays at home. Her life is pretty bare, mostly about books: reading constantly, then, once a year, translating a favorite volume into Arabic.

Her translations, however, are completely for herself. No one else even knows they exist. Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald. The manuscripts sit stored in boxes in her apartment, collecting dust, as secluded as their translator — all 37 of them.

And that is pretty much the entire novel's plot.

But somehow there's still room for sex, guns and Gustav Mahler. 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. A neighbor's movements upstairs, a sip from a glass of red wine at dinner — the smallest things inspire sequences of memories, ideas, quotations from her favorite authors. It's the drama of daily life, only highly informed.

Which could be tedious if Aaliya wasn't so unconventional, and possessed with enough awareness to avoid being self-absorbed. Aaliya's also devoted to Beirut, its gossip and turmoil. She makes the reader want to love her city, too, even while relating what it was like to live through years of fear and violence. "Beirut," she says, "is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."

Then there's the story of how Aaliya herself came to sleep at night with an AK-47 rifle in her bed instead of a husband, but I'll leave that up to the reader to discover.

When asked recently during an interview what this book is about, Alameddine referenced the poet Allan Grossman: "A poem is about something like a cat is about the house." Which I'll take to mean that An Unnecessary Woman is about nothing at all — and, at the same time, about everything that counts.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The novels of Rabih Alameddine are famously varied. His first touched on the American AIDS epidemic, and the civil war in Lebanon. His follow-up was a story made up entirely of first chapters. In 2008, his book "The Hakawati" wove together ancient tales from the Middle East with others from the present day.

Well, Alameddine's latest novel covers a little less territory. In fact, it takes place mostly in the mind of one woman. But reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin says that one inner life is plenty.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: As of last week, what I knew about Beirut could basically fit inside a sandwich bag. What I knew about being a blue-haired, 72-year-old woman, never mind a divorcee and a shut-in, was even less. But then I read "An Unnecessary Woman" by the Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, and I'm happy to encourage you to do the same. The book is a portrait of an isolated woman with a dazzling mind. She's our narrator, Aaliya, and she's coming to grips with getting old.

Aaliya used to run a bookstore. Now, she stays at home in the Beirut apartment she once shared with her husband. Her life is pretty bare. She mostly reads books. But once a year, she translates one of her favorites into Arabic. These manuscripts sit in boxes around her apartment, collecting dust, as secluded as their translator, all 37 of them. And that's pretty much the plot of this novel. But somehow, there's still room for sex and guns and Gustav Mahler, and it's told in a voice that's incredibly gripping.

Alameddine makes it clear that a sheltered life is not necessarily a shuttered one. Aaliya is thoughtful. She's complex. She's funny and critical. A neighbor chatting upstairs, a glass of red wine at dinner, the smallest things inspire memories and ideas, quotes from her favorite authors. It's the drama of daily life, only highly informed. And it could be highly tedious if Aaliya wasn't so unconventional and self-aware. She's also devoted to Beirut, with its gossip and turmoil. And she made me love it, too, even when she relates what it was like living through years of fear and violence.

Beirut, she says, is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging and forever drama laden. Then there's the story of how Aaliya came to sleep with an AK-47 in her bed instead of a husband. But I'll leave that for you to discover.

Recently, an interviewer asked Alameddine what this book was about. He answered with a nod to the poet Allan Grossman: A poem is about something, like a cat is about the house, which I'll take to mean that "An Unnecessary Woman" is about nothing at all and, at the same time, about everything that counts.

BLOCK: That was Rosecrans Baldwin reviewing "An Unnecessary Woman," a new novel by Rabih Alameddine. Rosecrans Baldwin's latest book is "Paris, I love You but You're Bringing Me Down." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.