A 72-year-old Beiruti woman considers her life through literature in an intimate, melancholy and superb tour de force.
Alameddine has a predilection for highly literary conceits in his novels: I, the Divine (2001) is constructed out of the discarded first chapters of its heroine’s memoir, while his 2008 breakthrough, The Hakawati, nests stories within stories lush with Arab lore. This book has a similarly artificial-seeming setup: Aaliya is an aging woman who for decades has begun the year translating one of her favorite books into Arabic. (Her tastes run toward the intellectual titans of 20th-century international literature, including W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano, Joseph Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and Fernando Pessoa.) Though, until its climax, there’s little action in the course of the day in which the novel is set, Aaliya is an engagingly headstrong protagonist, and the book is rich with her memories and observations. She’s suffered through war, a bad marriage and the death of a close friend, but most exasperating for her are her pestering mother and half brothers, who’ve been lusting after Aaliya’s apartment. As she walks through the city, she considers these fractures in her life, bolstering her fatalism against quotes from writers and the tragic histories of her beloved composers. Her relatively static existence is enlivened by her no-nonsense attitude, particularly when it comes to contemporary literature. (“Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany.”) And though Aaliya’s skeptical of redemption narratives, Alameddine finds a way to give the novel a climax without feeling contrived. Aaliya is an intense critic of the human condition, but she never feels embittered, and Alameddine’s storytelling is rich with a bookish humor that’s accessible without being condescending.
A gemlike and surprisingly lively study of an interior life.