Book Review: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Book Review: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih AlameddineAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Published by Grove Press on 02.04.2014
Genres: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: eARC
Source: Grove Press
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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

One of Beirut’s most celebrated voices, Rabih Alameddine follows his international 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, divorced, and childless, 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 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. Insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s 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 gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of a single woman's reclusive life in the Middle East.

I received this book for free from Grove Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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My Review:

It’s not often that a new year begins and I pick up a book that will not only start the new year off with a bang, but also catapult me into a mode of massive self-reflection and discovery.  It was astonishing to me that a man was able to write a woman that not only completely captured the person that I am, but also that our very fundamental differences would be a reason that the similarities between our lives would become even more prominent.  The author of An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine, has reached a status never before attained by any author I’ve read.  Quite simply, I would like to meet him and, through tears because I’m sure I would be weeping, thank him for understanding and for making me feel, for the first time ever, that all of the thoughts that go through my head are not unusual.  In fact, they are usual enough for him to craft an entire woman around them in this book.

So what am I talking about?  Let’s get into a bit of summary before I dive into some beautiful examples.  In An Unnecessary Woman, the protagonist, Aaliya, starts the story off by dying her hair blue.  She doesn’t intend to, she just wants to get a bit of color into the otherwise white mess.  Aaliya is a translator, she translates books of her own choosing through an intricate New Years ritual, into Arabic.  She is fluent in English and French and Arabic (although there is a very lovely section in which she describes the complexity of the Arabic language that made the linguist in me swoon with delight).  Yet her translations have never been read; she boxes them up with a copy of the book she has translated and puts them into a room for storage.  You see, Aaliya has been stuck in the same routine for years now.  She translates a translation, always, and always translates books that she has been considering for quite some time.  She is content, though, surrounded by her book and her memories, and through her own words, as well as artful and meaningful quotes from other great works, she explains her life through her failed marriage, her work at a bookstore, and her friendship with a woman named Hannah.

That is such an overly simple explanation of this book and, in no way, captures the beauty of Alameddine’s writing, nor the nuances of the character of Aaliya.  She recognizes that her life is not the norm and brings it out into the open with words like:

“How does the old cliche go?  When every Arab girl stood in line waiting for God to hand out the desperate-to-get-married gene, I must have been somewhere else, probably lost in a book.” (All quotes are taken from an advanced copy and are subject to change with the final release.)

As Anne with an E would say, I knew upon reading these words (and other beautiful passages contained within the book) that I had found my kindred spirit.  To be honest, I could quote all day in this review and just marvel over the beauty of the writing, the perfect building of the character of Aaliya, and my desire to just shake the hand of Alameddine and thank him repeatedly for writing a book that spoke so deeply to my soul.  Instead, I will end this review with an encouragement to make An Unnecessary Woman a necessary read of 2014.  It’s being released in February – pre-order it now and read it as soon as you get it.  I hope it will speak to you as much as it has me.

Check out these reviews from other bloggers!

  • “This book spoke to me in a million billion ways, more than I thought could be possible when you consider it’s about a 72-year old woman in Beirut, about as far removed from me as could be possible but it did. It’s brilliant.” – Plasticrosaries
  • “Perhaps, more than being “necessary” to anyone else, more than anything else, it is more important to figure out and commit to something larger than ourselves – as Aaliya did for fifty years without needing any validation in return. This is what I found to be most remarkable.” – Storyacious


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