Every once in awhile, I’ll pick up a book, and no more than one page in, know that I am at the beginning of something special. I’ll pause my reading and allow myself to bask in the anticipation of everything to come. Great beginnings are hard. Great endings are much harder. An Unnecessary Woman has both. A perfect beginning, a perfect ending, and perfect everything in between.
The novel opens with the protagonist, Aaliyah, a 72-year-old woman in Beirut, basking in anticipation of the new year. She is the definition of a bibliophile, and to pass her days alone, and to provide herself with a feeling of purpose, she translates. She translates novels following a strict set of rules: nothing written by French or English speaking authors, and every project begun on the first of January.
“The year is long dead. Long live the new year! I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most…Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation.”
And then acknowledging the strictness of her routine:
“Yes, I am a tad obsessive. For a nonreligious woman, this is my faith.”
I read these first pages, Aaliyah’s anticipation and her contemplation of that anticipation, just as this new year began. My first book of the new year and anticipation for a new year is the first subject! Aaliyah is trying to explain her illogical obsession with the ritual of the beginning of a year just as I was doing the same. I love New Years Eve. I love New Years Eve as much as I am boggled by why it should mean anything to me at all. A completely arbitrary division of a completely arbitrary concept, time, and yet every year it humbles me in how monumental it feels.
And Aaliyah’s love of ritual spoke to me as well. While she follows a ritual to translate, I follow a ritual, albeit a much simpler one, to read. I have a notebook, a physical notebook because there is something satisfying in handling a physical object in which I handwrite, where I keep track of every book I read. I allow every book I read only one side of one page of the notebook, no matter how long the book or how much I have to say about it. On the first line I write the name of the book, on the second the author and the year of publication, on the third, the date I begin reading the book and later, the date I finished reading it, and then every line below left open for notes I take while reading. There’s no real reason for this repeated ritual other than it adds to the anticipation of beginning a book, it is all part of the process.
An Unnecessary Woman is full of Aaliyah’s musings on literature, books she loves, books she hates, and why. She particularly hates books with “epiphanies” ; books that explain away tragedies, giving every tragedy a purpose. And yet, An Unnecessary Woman, ends with an epiphany of its own. Not an epiphany that makes the past, or anything, okay, but an epiphany that allows Aaliyah to keep living, to keep moving forward without falling into despair.
Near the middle of the novel, Alameddine writes:
“Joy is the anticipation of joy.”
And then the book ends with the sentence:
“I take a long breath, the air of anticipation.”
A perfect beginning, a perfect middle, a perfect end.
You’ll like this book if you like: classic literature, books about books, reflective protagonists, beautiful sentence-level writing, historical fiction, female-led stories, middle-eastern history