An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine

Grove Atlantic, 2013


Every once in awhile, I’ll pick up a book and immediately know that I am at the beginning of something special. I’ll pause and allow myself to bask in the anticipation of what’s to come. Great beginnings are hard. Great endings are even harder. An Unnecessary Woman has both. A perfect beginning, perfect ending, and perfect everything in between.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Aaliyah: a 72-year-old woman in Beirut, basking in anticipation of the new year. She is the definition of a bibliophile, and to pass her days alone, and to provide herself with a feeling of purpose, she translates. She translates novels following a strict set of rules: nothing written by French or English speaking authors, and every project begun on the first of January.

“The year is long dead. Long live the new year! I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most…Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation.”

I read these first pages, Aaliyah’s anticipation and her contemplation of that anticipation, just as this new year began. My first book of the new year and anticipation for a new year is the first subject!  Aaliyah is trying to explain her illogical obsession with the ritual associated with the beginning of a year just as I was doing the same. I love New Years Eve. I love New Years Eve as much as I am boggled by why it should mean anything to me at all.

An Unnecessary Woman is full of Aaliyah’s musings on literature, books she loves, books she hates, and why. She particularly hates books with epiphanies: that is, books that explain away tragedies, giving every tragedy a purpose. And yet, An Unnecessary Woman ends with an epiphany of its own: not an epiphany that makes the past—or anything, really—okay, but an epiphany that allows Aaliyah to keep living and to keep moving forward without falling into despair.

Near the middle of the novel, Alameddine writes:

“Joy is the anticipation of joy.”

And then the book ends with the sentence:

“I take a long breath, the air of anticipation.”

A perfect beginning, a perfect middle, a perfect end. Believe me or don’t, but this story about an old woman living alone in Beirut should be a Must Read for everyone.

Links: Rabih Alameddine .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org


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