An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”Although I know the characters of a novel as a collection of scenes as well, as accumulated sentences in my head. I feel I know them better than I do my mother. I fill in the blanks with literary personas better than I do with real people, or maybe I make more of an effort. I know Lolita’s mother better than I do mine, and I must say, I feel her more than I feel my mother. I recognize Rembrandt’s painted face of his mother better than I recognize the real face of mine.”
Aaliya’s city otherwise known as Beirut.
Aaliya has issues with her mother. Everytime she looks in the mirror she notices: ”I have my mother’s nose, which these days looks like a scimitar buried in slain flesh.” Her mother was always so supportive of her reading...well...not really..
”Of course I remember various permutations of the ‘Who will want to marry you if you read so much?’ lecture, but I also had to endure the chilly ‘Don’t try to be so different from normal people.’
Different from normal people?
When I first hear that, I was sorely offended. I thought every person should live for art, not just me, and furthermore, why would I want to be normal? Why should I want to be stupid like everyone else?”
Aaliya does marry, not a man out of literature although he might have slithered out of a Dicken’s novel as one of his more seedier creations. He certainly isn’t a stride across the moors kind of guy. Fortunately his flag won’t raise and he divorces Aaliya for being barren.
Beirut Bookstore...Aaliya kept her bookstore much cleaner and more organized than this guy.
Her friend Hannah helps her get a job in a bookstore. It wasn’t easy, the owner a preening fool who wants to own a bookstore just so he can say he owns a bookstore, is looking for a woman with movie star beauty not someone like Aaliya, but one after another these pretty bobbles he hires get married and so he finally, reluctantly, agrees to hire Aaliya. The last thing she is looking for is a husband. The owner, fortunately, hears the siren song of his lavish lifestyle and leaves Aaliya to manage the store however she wishes to.
He pays her crap wages.
She makes up for it by stealing books. One by one, they make the furtive journey to her apartment. She has plans for the very best of them. She knows English and French and she begins translating these books into Arabic. ”I create and crate.” Once finished she no longer has any interest in them. Publish you say? Perish the thought. Who would be interested in the workings of a madwoman?
She loves Beirut.
She’s still beautiful, you can’t ignore her, but she is crumbling around the edges. Elizabeth Taylor and Beirut are sisters in spirit.
”Beirut 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.”
Of course, like most Americans, what I remember about Beirut happened in 1983 when a suicide truck bomber blew up a Marine barracks killing 241 American servicemen. I didn’t realize until I started reading this book how much resentment I still felt over that incident, even though it wasn’t so much the Lebanese attacking Americans as it was crazy, religious fanatics that happened to be Lebanese. Anyway, it is so cool, that now my somewhat sour view of Beirut has been replaced by this charming, acerbic, book obsessed little old lady.
”When you write about the past, you lie with each letter, with every grapheme, including the goddamn comma.”
If the world was filled with book obsessed readers there would never be civil wars. They are simply too noisy with all the chatter of gunfire and the screaming of wounded people, not to mention the thump of mortars exploding may cause books to leap from their shelves. It is difficult with the constant barrages of noises to settle down properly with a good book.
It just wouldn’t do.
So who is Aaliya’s favorite philosopher?
The philosopher I feel the most kinship with is Spinoza; I identify with his story and his life. The Jewish elders of Amsterdam issued a cherem--a fatwa, for you non-Hebrew speakers--against my kinsman when he was a mere twenty-three. He was excommunicated for his heresies. He didn’t fight it, didn’t rebel. He didn’t even whine. He gave up his family inheritance and became a private scholar; a philosopher at home.”
So what does Aaliya think about Faulkner vs. Hemingway?
“I consider it a shame that most contemporary American writing seems informed more by Hemingway, the hero of adolescent boys of all ages and genders, than by the sui generis genius of letters, Faulkner. A phalanx of books about boredom in the Midwest is lauded (where the Midwest lies is a source of constant puzzlement to me, somewhere near Iowa I presume), as are books about unexplored angst in New Jersey or couples unable to communicate in Connecticut.
It was Camus who asserted that American novelists are the only one who think they need not be intellectuals.
She digresses in the middle of her story with such gems as this.
”In one of his essays, (Javier) Marias suggest that his work deals as much with what didn’t happen as with what happened. In other words, most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.”
I’ve had one of those weeks where words like this are so much more profound; and though scary, are after more pondering...comforting.
There are so much more that I wish I could share with you, but I want every person who reads this review to read this book. You have to read about how this mild mannered woman acquires an AK-47. It makes me smile every time I think about it. You need to make a list of all the fabulous books that with just a few lines of praise from Aaliya will have you salivating to read them. You must read about her Joseph Conradesque mishap. Her bottle blue misfortune.
You will have to wait until nearly the last page before she reveals what her favorite book is. It is an interesting choice.
”When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.
I am Rasholnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.
I am you.
I do believe I’m in love with a 72 year old Lebanese woman living in Beirut.
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