Task: Read a book with a female protagonist over the age of 60.
An Unnecessary Woman is narrated by Aaliya, a 72-year-old divorced reclusive atheist in Beirut. She is a fun character. She’s fierce, funny, and incredibly intelligent, and her inner life is the most intellectually rich of just about anyone I’ve encountered in fiction.
Aaliya spent most of her life working at a book store, but her real (unpaid, unread) work is translation. Her New Year’s ritual involves beginning a new translation project, which will eventually be loving placed in a cardboard box in the maid’s room, along with all her other manuscripts. She isn’t an academic, and she never shows anyone her work – she simply loves books and words for their own sake. I described her as an atheist, which isn’t entirely true. She names reading as her religion more than once, and it actually doesn’t sound like hyperbole. Her relationship with literature feels truly personally sacred.
As you’d probably expect, the book is stuffed with literary references. I wish I got more of them. Aaliya’s reading isn’t limited to American or British authors. She reads in Arabic, English, and French, and her scope is global. She hates Hemingway, but adores Faulker. I was glad that I’d recently finished The Sound and the Fury, because I immediately picked up on the significance of the phrase “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” which made me feel quite smug. I imagine that the book is full of easter eggs like that, and I wish I’d picked up on more of them. And that I’d read more world literature.
The book is also a complicated love letter to Beirut, which is probably the closest thing to a main character outside Aaliya’s head. Aaliya has witnessed the city’s brutal history, and at one point slept with an AK-47 for protection. But Aaliya’s Beirut is also a beautiful place full of contradictions and character, and I enjoyed getting a more nuanced view of the city than the barely-comprehended headlines from my childhood and early adulthood.
I don’t want to say too much about the ending, because it surprised me and really touched me, and I’m not sure that would have had quite as much impact if I’d seen it coming. I will say that the disaster that sets off the final act isn’t bloody or violent in the slightest, but it made me gasp and my blood pressure shoot up about as much as the most shocking piece of horror ever has.
Overall, this was a brainy, surprisingly sweet read that I’d recommend to anyone who cherishes the written word. It’s one of the slowest paced things I’ve read recently, but it definitely rewards a willingness to savor each paragraph.