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'An Unnecessary Woman' finds refuge in books

"An Unnecessary Woman" by Rabih Alameddine (Grove, February 2014). Credit: Grove Press

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN, by Rabih Alameddine. Grove Press, 291 pp., $25.

"Literature is my sandbox," proclaims Aaliya, the bibliophilic narrator of Rabih Alameddine's new novel, "An Unnecessary Woman." That's a big sandbox, but this 72-year-old woman -- divorced, childless and without friends -- spent the worst years of the Lebanese Civil War alone in a small Beirut apartment. Aaliya lives for books, but it's not mindless escapism -- she favors challenging European authors, such as Fernando Pessoa, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Ki?s, W.G. Sebald and Peter Nadas.

Every January, Aaliya begins work translating a new work into Arabic. To date she has translated 37 books, but not a single one has been published. Each manuscript goes into a box to be stored in a spare room. "I know this sounds esoteric," she says, "but it's the act that inspires me, the work itself. Once the book is done, the wonder dissolves. . . ."

At the opening of "An Unnecessary Woman," Aaliya has accidentally shampooed her hair blue; as the novel proceeds, she receives an unexpected visit from her decrepit mother, interacts with a trio of gossipy female neighbors (the "three witches") and takes a walk around her cacophonous hometown. ("Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities," Aaliya observes, "insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.") Along the way, she reflects on her favorite literary works and recalls episodes from her life: the unhappy marriage at 16, the deep friendship with Hannah in her youth, the days managing a bookshop, the nights of the Israeli siege when she slept with an AK-47.

Alameddine, the author of three previous novels and a story collection, splits his time between Beirut and San Francisco. "The Hakawati" (2008), about a man who returns to Beirut to see his dying father, was a contemporary "Arabian Nights," overflowing with stories and fables. "An Unnecessary Woman," in contrast, is mostly plotless; what drives it is Aaliya's insinuating voice, by turns prickly, grandiose, ironic, apologetic and melancholy. Hovering over her monologue are larger existential questions: What does it mean to be alone? Can we find true happiness in books? Do our public accomplishments give our lives value? And what, exactly, is a "necessary" woman?

Neither Aaliya nor the author have definitive answers -- but what did you expect? Aaliya, after all, is a reader who despises epiphanies and tidy endings. "I should send out letters to writers, writing programs, and publishers," she warns. "You're strangling the life out of literature, sentence by well-constructed sentence, book by bland book." Playful, brainy and full of zest, "An Unnecessary Woman" is an antidote to literary blandness. Welcome to the sandbox.

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