An Unnecessary Woman: A world transformed by words

Aminatta Forna in The Independent:

BookOne morning in December, Aaliyah Sobhi, a 72-year-old resident of Beirut, misreads the label on a shampoo bottle and dyes her hair bright blue. With this accidental act, so begins Rabih Alameddine’s gorgeous fourth novel, An Unnecessary Woman, the story of a life lived in a city at war. The story’s conceit is simple and unusual. Aaliyah, who has spent her life working in a moderately unsuccessful bookstore in Beirut, passes her retirement translating works of fiction into classical Arabic. On the first of January each year she chooses her book. Last year it was WG Sebald’s Austerlitz; this year she ponders tackling Chilean Roberto Bolano’s mammoth 2666. For reasons of her own she never translates from English or French. When the translation is complete she does not send it to a publisher but stores it in the unused maid’s room at the back of her apartment, along with the translations of the books that went before. So far there are 57. Aaliyah is alone. There is an impotent ex-husband, who did not love her and whom she declined to love in turn. There is a father who died. There is an avaricious and ailing mother, who favoured the sons of her second marriage. Aaliyah’s step-brothers, equally avaricious, all want to get their hands on Aaliyah’s apartment. There are neighbours: husbandless women too, who meet for coffee each morning. From her flat below Aaliyah listens to their conversations and assiduously avoids the possibility of an encounter.

…An Unnecessary Woman is a story of innumerable things. It is a tale of blue hair and the war of attrition that comes with age, of loneliness and grief, most of all of resilience, of the courage it takes to survive, stay sane and continue to see beauty. Read it once, read it twice, read other books for a decade or so, and then pick it up and read it anew. This one’s a keeper.

More here.