When I began reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman for my reading group, I was sorry we had selected this book. I had read his previous novel, The Hakawati, expecting to love it because it resembled The Arabian Nights in some ways, a work I had absorbed as a young girl. But I ended up hating it for reasons I won’t go into here. When I finally gave up because the narrative was so frustrating, I knew I wouldn’t read anything by this author again.
Luckily, while I had remembered the novel’s name, The Hakawati, I had forgotten the author’s. Otherwise, when one of the women from my reading group chose An Unnecessary Woman, I didn’t demur. And by the time I realized who the author was, I had already purchased book and felt bound to read it.
My resistance to the writer initially colored my reaction to the story’s main character, Aaliya Sohbia, a 72 year-old Lebanese woman who lives an isolated life in Beirut. Books are her primary companions. Though I was pleased to see a contemporary work that featured an older person, I continued to resist this author and the idea of a male portraying a woman in the first person. I thought he would falter. Yet I ended up being amazed at how he inhabited Aaliya’s personality and created an eccentric type who has a wonderful wit and perspective on life in a war-town city I haven’t visited.
While Beirut has not been part of my travel plans, I have visited many of the authors and their works that Alameddine weaves into the narrative: Pessoa, Sebald, Bolano, Anne Enright, and so many more. I realized I could have deep, invigorating conversations with Aaliya if we were to meet. She also is a kind of writer herself. One of her yearly rituals is to translate some major works into Arabic, and she handwrites the manuscripts. Yet she never tried to publish these translations. Instead, she stored them in an extra room in her apartment, a secret “vice” that neither family nor friends knew about.
I’ve learned something important from this experience. Just as one shouldn’t judge a book (or a person) by its cover, so, too, one shouldn’t negate an author because s/he may have written an unappealing work. In An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine demonstrates not only skill at creating a believable, engaging female character, but his own humor, metaphors, and phrasing makes for a satisfying read.