My grandmother had a never-ending supply of sayings.
Putting shoes on the bed was bad luck, a watched pot never boils, keep the stiff upper lip. Her favorite by far, however, was this: getting old isn’t for sissies.
In Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, this author tells the story of Aaliya, a seventy-two-year-old woman living alone in Beirut, Lebanon. Aaliya is no sissy.
Divorced at the age of eighteen, she lived the rest of her days alone, but not lonely, in her apartment. Each year for the past thirty years, she has translated a masterwork of literature into Arabic. Through the stream of consciousness, Alameddine paints a picture that you have to read to believe.
Not everyone ages gracefully. The sad fact is that most people do not, but this is not true for Aaliya. This mind-blowing character is too intelligent and independent to conform to the stereotypes. Aaliya does not patiently wait for the men in her life to decide everything for her; instead, she translates books. Books are her gateway to infinity.
Wanting to escape and live through words on a page is easy to sympathize with; it is many people’s wish to be transported through time and space to a more interesting, colorful, or better time than the one they live in. After spending thirty years translating masterpieces into her vernacular, Aaliya files her translations away. She does not initially seek outside recognition; the act of translating is for her and herself alone. The only purpose is for her, to feed her soul.
Alameddine makes at least three dozen references to authors, philosophers, composers, and painters throughout his novel. Dostoyevsky, Keats, Mark Twain, Czeslaw Miloz, Mitlon, Ota Pavel, Spinoza and Peter Paul Rubens all make appearances. Quite a list, eh?
The research that the author conducted for this novel must have taken years to pull together. It is utterly commendable that Alameddine took such care and effort when constructing his work. One can only imagine the tedious work it took to find the exactly right quotes from the exactly right book to enhance a certain plot point. This book, above all else, is an ode to literature and the arts.
Alameddine uses a stream of consciousness throughout the novel, and he eliminates formatted chapters in order to enhance this literary device. Yes, there are page breaks to make the formatting less daunting, but there are no formal transitions that delineate the end of one idea and the start of the next.
Everything about the way Aaliya tells her story is genuine to how a person would orally present a tale. On more than one occasion, the protagonist breaks the fourth wall. It is not uncommon to read a line where she says, “I’ve strayed too far once, more. Sorry.” In addition to providing comic relief, Alameddine is clever enough to know how to reel this reader back in after a seemingly complete non sequitur.
Today, Beirut and its region are on everyone’s mind. Alameddine’s Beirut is a little different, though. Instead of the Hezbollah ridden cities, the author takes his reader back to the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. He uses war references to convey Aaliya’s strength; at night she would pick “up the AK-47 that lay next to me on the right side, where my husband used to sleep all those years earlier. It kept me company in the bed for the whole civil war.”
This is not a story of love. If you are looking for pretty plot with an ending that explains it all, you will be disappointed. If, however, you are looking for a window into the life of an amazing woman and the struggles she overcomes, this book demands to be read. When reading this book, try to follow Aaliya’s example in letting “the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates from the book. Try to be involved.”