An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
The original meaning of Aaliyah is ‘above it all’, and for Rabih Alameddine’s protagonist in An Unnecessary Woman, the name is becoming. Aaliyah’s existence is defined through multiple displacements – estranged from her family, divorced, retired and friendless, Aaliyah observes the present and past with aloof detachment. She lives in Beirut, in the banal aftermath of the turmoil that once caught the world’s attention. In a quiet refusal to assign causal significance to that conflict, Aaliyah seeks a lifetime of meaning in the vast collection of books she has acquired over her 72 years.
Alameddine develops his fourth novel through a series of tender frames. An ageing woman drinks two glasses of wine and accidentally dyes her hair blue. A solitary translator begins a new work on the first day of every year, packing the previous year’s work away in a maid’s bathroom, never to be read. A handsome lieutenant walks a hospital worker home, where his politeness is mistaken for a marriage proposal. These intensely personal memories are somehow best restored by the quotations of others. The beaten, yet somehow resilient protagonist jerry-rigs an identity around existential literary empathies: ‘I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.’
Although the novel centres on Aaliyah’s perspective of a failed life, the story is multifaceted. At once a sublime encomium to the art of reading well, where the pleasures of the text are called to the task of self-making, the novel is also a gentle appeal against loftiness. For every canonical seduction, there is pause for the folly of disconnection, the vanity of denial. In Alameddine’s examination of memory, translation and freedom, there is an insistence that life is more than the cruel absurdities of a reductive reality. An Unnecessary Woman charms with expressive cynicism and inadvertent optimism, shining a unique light on the art of storytelling.
Lucy Van is a freelance reviewer.