The task of writing a review of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is daunting. Why? Because I don't want to write anything that might keep someone from reading this book.
Everybody should read this book. And absolutely all book lovers must read this book. This book is for anyone who questions their place in the universe, and who uses books to find answers; this book is for anyone who has felt ever insignificant or superfluous or confused and turned to a poem or a short story or a novel for comfort and support. There is much to be mined in this book for comfort and for inspiration and for thought. I carry it with me now in my shoulder bag, because An Unnecessary Woman is a book to read again and again. It is a most necessary book about an extraordinary woman.
Aaliya Saleh is divorced, childless, and largely friendless since the death of her closest friend, Hannah, years ago. She lives alone in the Beirut apartment she came to as a teenaged wife. The family that remains to Aaliya wears on her nerves but never comforts her fears.
Of what is Aaliya fearful? Of affirming what she has long suspected, that her life is - and most lives are - insignificant. She tells us, the readers with whom she freely converses, that the most common epitaph on Ancient Roman headstones was Non fui, Fui, Non sum, Non curo (I was not, I was, I am not, I don't care). But Aaliya does care. She cares very much, and her mode of caring is through the translations she works on, year after year. Translating is not her job -- she worked in a bookstore before it closed -- but it is her lifeline, almost literally. Aaliya is a voracious and loving reader -- "I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word" -- and the homage she pays to the art of writing is her gift of translating.
We first meet Aaliya after she has completed her translation for the year and celebrated with the ritual of two glasses of red wine. The celebration unfortunately (or not -- we shall see) has led to Aaliya mistakenly dying her hair blue. Over the next few days, we accompany Aaliya as she goes about considering next year's translation project. She contemplates her lifetime of reading, while also supplying an enthralling personal history of twentieth century Beirut, most of it grueling and heartbreaking, but also with a touch of enchantment and moments of joy.
As Aaliya putters through her days, she considers the question of illusions -- to what extent are our self-delusions necessary? The illusion that what we do is important, that history matters, that our love is returned and our birthplace is eternal: what feeds our perceptions, what keeps us whole and hearty? At times Aaliya feels she knows the characters in books better than she knows the very real people who surround her -- is that good or bad or neither? Do we learn from books or escape into them?
Our delusions and illusions are sometimes fed by the books we read. But at the same time, the very best books remind us again and again of what is real and what is true, "that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls... Or perhaps not."
The "not" is what worries Aaliya but Alameddine's novel about this unforgettable woman offers beautiful and persuasive proof that we all contain much more than any surface explanations of our life could convey. And the final pages of this wonderful book -- very unexpected in unexpected ways -- are definitive proof of soul, not only as pertaining to Aaliya, but for all readers everywhere. Maybe we get our souls from the books we read; maybe we put our souls into the books we read. But there can be no doubt: book lovers have soul.