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A Widow's Quiet Life Leaves Room For Sex, Guns And Literature

As of last week, what I knew about Beirut could fit in a sandwich bag. What I knew about being a blue-haired, 72-year-old woman, never mind a widow and a shut-in, was a whole lot less. Now, one week later, I'm much more informed, and I'm happy to encourage you to become so, too.

An Unnecessary Woman is the latest novel from Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. It's a portrait of an isolated woman with a dazzling mind as she comes to grips with getting old. Alameddine's narrator is named Aaliya. She lives alone in Beirut, in the apartment she used to share with her husband before they divorced. Previously she ran a bookstore. Now she stays at home. Her life is pretty bare, mostly about books: reading constantly, then, once a year, translating a favorite volume into Arabic.

Her translations, however, are completely for herself. No one else even knows they exist. Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald. The manuscripts sit stored in boxes in her apartment, collecting dust, as secluded as their translator — all 37 of them.

And that is pretty much the entire novel's plot.

<em>An Unecessary Woman</em> is Rabih Alameddine's fourth novel.
Benito Ordonez / Courtesy of Grove Atlantic
Courtesy of Grove Atlantic
An Unecessary Woman is Rabih Alameddine's fourth novel.

But somehow there's still room for sex, guns and Gustav Mahler. I can't remember the last time I was so gripped simply by a novel's voice. Alameddine makes it clear that a sheltered life is not necessarily a shuttered one. Aaliya is thoughtful, she's complex, she's humorous and critical. A neighbor's movements upstairs, a sip from a glass of red wine at dinner — the smallest things inspire sequences of memories, ideas, quotations from her favorite authors. It's the drama of daily life, only highly informed.

Which could be tedious if Aaliya wasn't so unconventional, and possessed with enough awareness to avoid being self-absorbed. Aaliya's also devoted to Beirut, its gossip and turmoil. She makes the reader want to love her city, too, even while relating what it was like to live through years of fear and violence. "Beirut," she says, "is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."

Then there's the story of how Aaliya herself came to sleep at night with an AK-47 rifle in her bed instead of a husband, but I'll leave that up to the reader to discover.

When asked recently during an interview what this book is about, Alameddine referenced the poet Allan Grossman: "A poem is about something like a cat is about the house." Which I'll take to mean that An Unnecessary Woman is about nothing at all — and, at the same time, about everything that counts.

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