"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.
Let me explain."
With those words, we are introduced to Aaliya Saleh, a seventy-two-year-old Lebanese woman and the narrator in Rabih Alamaddine’s novel, An Unnecessary Woman. Her culture may classify her as unnecessary because she is elderly, divorced, and childless. But Aaliya is anything but “unnecessary.” She is precocious, sassy, eccentric, witty, resilient, socially recluse, introverted, brilliant, and an absolute delight.
The novel unfolds in the form of Aaliya’s monologue. She reveals details about her childhood, her loveless marriage at the age of 16, her subsequent divorce, her tense relationship with her mother, her friendship with Hannah, her employment in a bookstore, her aging body, her three neighbors (“the three witches”), and a consuming passion to which she has devoted fifty years of her life. This passion consists of translating translations into Arabic. Specifically, she translates novels that have already been translated into French or English. She completes a translation, crates the manuscript, and ferrets it away in an empty room to be hidden from prying eyes. Each January 1, Aaliya embarks on a new translation. By the time we meet her, this small room is bursting with crates.
Her monologue is full of witticism, inspirational gems and insights, her voice vibrant and engaging. She has a way with words. When her husband divorces her and walks out of their apartment, she says, "I did not wait for the smell of him to dissipate on its own. I expunged it." Convinced she will remain unloved and unattractive all her life, she says of herself, “I was already different: tall, not attractive at all. Mine is a face that would have trouble launching a canoe.”
To say Aaliya is an avid reader doesn’t begin to do her justice. Aaliya lives and breathes books. She speaks of characters in novels as if they are old acquaintances. She peppers her musing about life with lines from poetry. She drops names of artists effortlessly in her sentences. She is erudite, knowledgeable about music and composers, and shares interesting tidbits about their lives. And she does all this while navigating the streets of Beirut during lulls in the civil war with its decimated buildings, crumbling infrastructure, shell-shocked population, and intermittent power outages.
This is a wonderful novel. Rabih Alameddine uses his immense talent to craft an endearing portrait of an unforgettable woman. The last scene was particularly moving. Aaliya’s storage room with all her crated manuscripts has been flooded due to a leak in an upstairs bathroom. Fifty years of labor is reduced to a soggy mess. Devastated, Aaliya weeps uncontrollably. But all is not lost. Rescue comes in the form of her three neighbors, clad in dressing gowns and slippers, who begin the painstaking task of salvaging the manuscripts armed with hair dryers and clotheslines. This is a beautiful image of sisterhood and community to end what is a remarkable novel.
Highly recommended, especially for those of us who share Aaliya’s passion for snuggling up between the covers of a book.