An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Alameddine is a Lebanese-American author who lives in both San
Francisco and Beirut. He is the author of three previous novels.

An Unnecessary Woman
is a departure from the others in that it features an older woman as
its first-person narrator. It is through her eyes that we come to know
other characters, and indeed, the city of Beirut itself.

is 72, divorced, childless, and living alone in an apartment once
shared with her husband. Now, her sole companions are the fictional ones
in the books she has scattered in her apartment. She was once
modestly employed as a bookseller, but when the bookstore closed, Aaliya
was forced into retirement. Her main occupation now is that of a
translator of literary fiction. She begins a new translation every
January. Yet her translations are purely for herself; the
manuscripts - all 37 of them - sit in boxes in her apartment, never to be

This is a contemplative book, its story
composed of the inner reflections of the narrator. And like thoughts,
the prose weaves between past and present. Beirut is as much a character
as the other people who pass through Aaliya's life. War-torn Beirut.
Bombs from without and from within.

Aaliya's life is
one of deprivation from the time she was two years old. It was then that
she lost the one person who loved her - her father. Her mother became
almost hostile to her once she remarried and had sons. Later, Aaliya was
married off to a man who never loved her and who was, in fact,
impotent. When her husband divorced her and left behind their shared
apartment, her family attempted to take it away from her.

Aaliya is resilient. She is not likable but the reader has profound
respect for her. She never sinks into self-pity. Quoting the author
Javier Marias, Aaliya compares his writings with her fate:

In one of his essays, she recalls,
Marias suggests that his work deals as much with what didn't happen as
with what happened. In other words, most of us believe we are who we are
because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us,
because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we're
also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have
happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.
  (p. 22)

title may get its name from the story of the artist and writer Bruno
Schulz. Schulz was a Polish Jew whose erotic art was tinged with
sado-masochism. When Schulz was relocated to the guetto, the Gestapo
officer in charge of the Jewish labor force, Felix Landau, decided that
Bruno was "a necessary Jew." He made this decision because he fancied
himself a lover of art. Schulz lived for a time as Landau's personal
painter, creating murals of fairy tales in his son's bedroom. He
ultimately was shot by a rival Gestapo officer, Karl Gunther, in
retaliation for the dentist Landau shot - "a necessary dentist, one
presumes." (p. 183)

Alameddine's novel is filled with
reflections such as this one. While not political, its narrator exposes
the reader to the atrocities of war and the allure of extremism on
youth. An Unnecessary Woman is a uniquely written novel that is
rich in literary allusions from the greatest of writers - Dostoevsky,
Calvino, Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Saramago, and Conrad.

If you are a lover of literature and enjoy books about the Mideast, An Unnecessary Woman offers a view from another perspective.

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