The BUZZ: Just nominated for the 2014 National Book Award. This is the fifth novel for Alameddine and a glimpse into the history and culture of the Middle East.
The GIST: A lonely elderly woman, Aaliya Saleh, narrates her tale from her decaying apartment in Beirut. She has seen very little of the world yet knows a great deal about it. Her guides have been the thousands of books she has read and the 35 she has painstakingly translated into Arabic over the last 50 years. Her life has had no great impact, and her work has never been published. But, she is an astute observer of her beloved city, of society, of men and women, and, most of all, of literature and philosophy. Aaliya holds nothing back and is at turns nostalgic and sharply critical. Her sarcastic assessments of people and authors are brilliant and funny. She is an ordinary person making sense of a confusing world, and in this way her life story is a gift to all of us.
The WRITING: Exquisite. Every sentence of this novel is one to savor. Alameddine describes scenes in such detail that they leave the reader breathless. He inhabits the mind of his main character so completely that she almost rises from the book and becomes whole and breathing beside you. Though Alameddine is well known in the Middle East, he is a discovery for me; I would be hard pressed to name a writer as gifted at the craft.
BUY or BORROW?: Buy. An Unnecessary Woman deserves a second read. It is simple in style yet layered with beauty and insight. This one sneaks up on you, a lovely surprise that lingers.
I like men and women who don’t fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived.