While this novel is technically not a biography of a real person, it is written in the first person and functions a bit like a make-believe memoir of sorts. Aaliyah is a woman in her 70s, who lives on her own in her Beiruti apartment that is filled with books. As she narrates her life story, she also acknowledges the many loopholes in memoirs and biographies, which I thought was perfect given our reading theme:
Written by: Rabih Alameddine
Published by: Corsair (2015)
ISBN13: 9781472119209. Literary Awards: California Book Award for Fiction (Gold) (2014), Prix Femina for Étranger (2016), Arab American Book Award for Fiction (2015), PEN Open Book Award Nominee for Shortlist (2015), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2014), National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2014). Book was given to me as a gift.
I recommended this title to one of my online reading communities for our May book. While it has received some effusive love from some, others shared that they simply couldn’t get into the rhythm of the book and a few found the many references off-putting. I do understand where they are coming from. Yet, perhaps, this book came to me at exactly the right time in my life when I needed to hear its voice. Hence, to say that I absolutely loved it would be an understatement. I think the book had me at page five:
After having reviewed a memoir on reading that I found deplorable (see my post on Howard’s End Is On The Landing by Susan Hill), I suppose I have a basis for comparison, which made me appreciate Aaliyah’s book-filled narrative even more. For one, most of the authors mentioned in this novel are not known to me – something which made my bibliophile’s heart jump a notch. I welcome all the new, hard-to-find, non-mainstream esoteric authors coming from different parts of the world that was referenced here.
While other readers may regard it as tiresome, I found it extremely refreshing to be introduced to new-to-me authors, that my eyes literally popped out of my sockets, and would explain the many tabs that you can see in my copy above. It doesn’t matter that I may not totally get the references, I look forward to revisiting this narrative all over again after I have read Pessoa, Javier Marias, Sebald, among others.
Like Aaliyah, I recall discovering poetry, with a resigned understanding that I cannot possibly live without it. I have a visceral reaction to lyrical text, such that I gasp for air, my eyes welling involuntarily, despite myself. I am getting old, yes, yes. I get that too. However, I do remember watching the movie Skyfall, when Judi Dench who played M, quoted from Tennyson, and I experienced feeling such goosebumps that no fast-paced action, riveting car chase, non-stop shooting in the movie had ever done.
Thus, I find Aaliyah to be a kindred. I get that the story is seemingly without a plot, ruminative-to-a-fault, with a mastery in artful digressions. And despite Aaliyah’s being evidently a bibliophile (and an auto-didact at that), it is not always pleasant being in her head throughout the book, and the reader simply has no choice but to “listen to” (read) her musings.
Despite this, however, I find that there is something self-effacing yet sharp, vulnerable yet strong, sardonic yet profoundly sad in Aaliyah’s voice that resonated with me. It is this last that captured my heart and made me bleed for Aaliyah’s self-imposed yet unwitting isolation, her self-sufficiency that also seemed to chance upon her.
As Aaliyah reflects back on her life, and writes poignantly about her experiences during the multiple wars that she has lived through – with both Israelis and Palestinians seeking refuge in Beirut – and how she survived all of this, the reader gets an aftertaste of regret, a lingering scent of paths not taken:
Aaliyah also constantly identifies with those who live in the in-between, the outsiders, those who exist in the borders, the margins, not fitting in, belonging neither here nor there. This particular quote from Sepharad, for example, moved me deeply, probably because I am one of those who have left the city of my birth:
I also admire how Aaliyah has found refuge in art, sanctuary in literature. Every year for the past fifty years, Aaliyah has taken it upon herself to translate into Arabic a favourite work that has been translated from its original language to either English or French. Hence, her translation is twice-removed from the original, as she sees no point in translating books originally written in English or French, as these are novels that are already accessible to most people from Beirut. While she has written translations of thirty-seven books from authors that I am only familiarizing myself with now, she has no intention of publishing any of them, as she thinks that it won’t be of any interest to anyone but herself.
If I were to wax academic, Aaliyah experiences what psychologist/researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’ or an optimum state of being among high creatives: this sensation of losing one’s self in one’s work, while at the same time finding one’s self in it. There is nothing as divine as this.
Yet more than anything, it was the kind of book love that does not exclude, but rather invites the reader in, that spoke to me deeply. I never felt that Aaliyah mentioned these authors only in passing for the sake of doing it, or to prove that she is smarter than the reader. All the quotes, the references, the asides are an integral part of the narrative given how the entire novel is rooted in books. These voices in her mind seemed more alive to her than her own mother’s, or brother’s, or neighbour’s.
It did not put me off because not once did I feel inadequate for not knowing who these authors were. There is a shared joy in discovering these voices, an exuberance in seeing how this extract from this particular novel fits her experience wonderfully, like a key fitting neatly into a lock. It is the joy that can be found in finally arriving at the right word or phrase to describe perfectly a nuance, a shade of feeling, that seemed initially so difficult to pin down into words.
One caveat though. While I love this novel, I can not help but feel that the voice is still decidedly male. It’s like Alameddine’s spirit is speaking through Aaliyah’s. This is perhaps confirmed by the fact that much of the authors referenced in this novel are males; only two female authors that I can discern.
Allow me to end this post by saying that my TBR stack has expanded exponentially, thanks to Rabih’s “Unnecessary Woman.” As I was drafting this post, I realized that there are way too many novels to be included in this review, so much so that I will be featuring the list for my Saturday Reads post next week. I hope this book finds you at the right time, and that you enjoy it as much as I did.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: 34 of 40: Beirut, Lebanon