by John Ellis
This is the year that I turn forty. I’m sure that there are many self-help books out there explaining how to navigate a mid-life crisis, but I think mine is progressing quite nicely without the aid of self-help books. For example, every unexplained pain causes me to pause and wonder if, just to be safe, I should stop what I’m doing and hug my kids one last time. And, when I look back on my accomplishments, I wonder if any of it mattered; if not, is it too late to build something that does matter? When I turned thirty, the thought of a mid-life crisis seemed laughable; the pathetic existential crisis of men who are not John Ellis. Cocky, self-assured, with a size 32 waist and legs that could still lift him high enough to dunk a basketball, thirty year old John Ellis scoffed at time’s feeble attacks. The soon to be forty year old John Ellis finds himself screaming for it to stop; how is it twenty-one years after high school graduation already?
Aaliyah, the protagonist of Rabih Alameddine’s beautiful novel, An Unnecessary Woman, speaks of the blessing of digital clocks that do not loudly tick down the seconds like the old clocks, “Ticktock, you’re all alone in an empty apartment. Ticktock, the world outside is going to come and get you. Ticktock, you’re not getting any younger, are you? … The ticktock tattooing of the march of time. The ticktock of the tiny object full of gears suffocating all existence, wringing life out of life.”
Needless to say, An Unnecessary Woman resonated with me.
In her seventies, Aaliyah, going through a late-life crisis, would’ve silently scorned my largely self-involved mid-life crisis, but that didn’t stop me from not only finding a kindred spirit but also falling in love with her as I read Alameddine’s latest novel. Set in Beirut, Lebanon, An Unnecessary Woman deftly moves back and forth through seventy-two years of a compactly woven life.
Rabih Alameddine, author of Koolaids: the Art of War, I, the Divine, and The Hakawati, is an American-Lebanese writer who was born in Jordan. Splitting his time between San Francisco and Beirut, his love for the Middle East is apparent. If the only information that I had of Alameddine was An Unnecessary Woman, I would’ve bet a large sum of money that the author was originally from Beirut. This is because of how Alameddine writes about Beirut.
Beirut is the closest thing to family that Aaliyah has left by the time she enters her eight decade on earth, even though she technically has remaining family in the city. Alameddine’s portrayal of Beirut and its role in Aaliyah’s life is handled softly but without blind forgiveness for the city’s warts. Beirut is summed up with the description that she “is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”
An Unnecessary Woman has a linear plot, of sorts, but that plot, which finds Aaliyah contemplating a reconnection with her family, takes a backseat to colorful and deeply meaningful vignettes as Aaliyah’s memory takes the reader along on a probing journey. The time that elapses between the first page and the last is technically a mere few days, but Alameddine allows his protagonist to dump an entire puzzle out of its box, organizing the jumbled mass of pieces adroitly as her mind seeks to make sense of her current time and place. Her arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, the failing of that marriage, the odd friendship with a sister-in-law who’s not a sister-in-law, and her emotionally disconnected tryst with a preeminent torturer during the Beirut Civil War, all mundane (mundane at least in the world of novels and heightened reality) plodding plot points in most other novels, are puzzle pieces that Aaliyah muses over for the purpose of seeing the end picture.
A captivating book, An Unnecessary Woman and its heroine, Aaliyah, feel deeply personal. The reader is allowed to become the intimate companion of a lonely, intriguing, and insightful woman who is her own confidence woman. And, more, the reader will find that although Aaliyah’s specific life circumstances may be vastly different than their own, the meanings are incredibly familiar and those meanings, narrated by as intelligent and circumspect a woman as Aaliyah, will cause the reader to see his or her own life in much sharper relief.
This may sound odd, but as the book ended, unlike most other excellent books with intriguing and interesting characters, I felt no tinge of sadness at saying goodbye to Aaliyah. There is a completeness in An Unnecessary Woman that allows for the reader to walk away cleanly. That being said, traversing her life alongside Aaliyah as she narrates is its own set of bookends that, while complete, leaves room for the reader to carry their time with Aaliyah forward, even if you don’t have a ticking clock to mark that time.