An Unnecessary Woman
Rabih Alameddine follows his 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 Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, 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 over her lifetime 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. Colorful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s own 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, Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of one woman’s life in the Middle East.
'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.
The extraordinary if “unnecessary” woman at the center of this magnificent novel built into my heart a sediment of life lived in reverse, through wisdom, epiphany, and regret. This woman—Aaliya is her name—for all her sly and unassuming modesty, is a stupendous center of consciousness. She understands time, and folly, and is wonderfully comic. She has read everything under the sun (as has her creator, Alameddine), and as a polyglot mind of an old world Beirut, she reminds us that storehouses of culture, of literature, of memory, are very fragile things indeed. They exist, shimmering, as chimeras, in the mind of Aaliya, who I am so happy to feel I now know. Her particularity, both tragic and lightly clever, might just stay with me forever.
With "An Unnecessary Woman", Rabih Alameddine has accomplished something astonishing: a novel that is at once expansive and intimate, quiet and full of feeling. Aaliya is one of the more memorable characters in contemporary fiction, and every page of this extraordinary novel demands to be savored and re-read.
There are many ways to break someone's heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life. With both tender care and surgical exactness, An Unnecessary Woman leads us away from the commonplace and the mundane to enter a world made of love for words, wisdom, and memories. No words can express my gratitude for this book.