Aaliya lives alone in the second-floor apartment in a none too salubrious part of Beirut and contemplates the gaudy transformation of her city and the imminent arrival of old age with its growing catalogue of “accepted defeats”. She had been subjected to relentless pressure, and occasional threats, by her family after her (impotent, not that they knew that) husband had moved on leaving her with the social disgrace of divorce. No, she dug in. This was her home. And she needs the space for her enduring companions, her books.
“Books everywhere, stacks and stacks, shelves and bookcases, stacks atop each shelf … how many hours have I moved around this room, from nook to nook, making sure that everything is in its proper place, every book in its proper pile, every dust mote annihilated?” It is in their pages that she finds companionship, conversation and an often dryly-witty observation of the vagaries of life in a constantly changing Beirut. As she explains: “Literature is my sandbox. In it, I build my forts, spend glorious time. It is the world outside which gives me trouble.”
For decades the apartment has been her intellectual, emotional and physical refuge, even though at times she needed to sleep with a Kalashnikov at hand to protect it. This is the place where she had an eagle’s eye view as her city as it was torn apart by violence and abandoned by those who had a place to go to, where she could witnesses the terrible brutality and amazing resilience. The place where she could spy on, and fleetingly interact with the colourful trio of “witches” who also live in the apartment block and on whom she can eavesdrop as they support, tease, gossip about and share endless cups of coffee with each other.
This is where she is preparing to indulge her delicious secret. Each January she chooses a book and then spends the following year translating it into Arabic. Should it be W G Sebald? Or Microcosms by Claudio Magris? The choosing is as tantalizing as the eventual feast: “Joy is the anticipation of joy. Reading a fine book for the first time is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast of Ramadan.”
For Aaliya it is a labour of unwavering love, the fruit of which only she will ever see. Once complete, the manuscripts are packaged up and neatly stacked, in a collection that has now overflowed into the bathroom. Decades of work, the reward for which is that they simply exist. But now, a terrible tragedy has occurred that threatens everything and she is forced to let the witches coven invade her solitude and into her world.
In Aaliya, Alameddine has created an unforgettable character: wise, selfish, humane, compelling and whose interaction with the authors is always perceptive, often surprisingly playful. Alameddine’s prose is a pleasure, his descriptions occasionally so colourful and precise they are more painting or a photograph than words on a page. His Beirut is a living, breathing metropolis with all its charms and failings.
An Unnecessary Woman is a novel that is both haunting and joyous a story of a life-long love affair with literature. It is one of the few books one that you will treasure and return to. Particularly if you are the kind of person who might accidentally turn your hair blue. It is on the shortlist for the fiction category of the American National Book Awards together with Lila by Marilynne Robinson, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Redeployment by Phil Klay and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The winner will be announced on November 19. Read an excerpt.
An Unnecessary Woman is by Text Publishing