One of the Middle East's most celebrated voices, Rabih Alameddine follows his international best seller, The Hakawati, with an enchanting story of a book-loving, obsessive, 72-year-old "unnecessary" woman. Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, Aaliya is her family's "unnecessary appendage." Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The 37 books that Aaliya has translated over her lifetime have never been read by anyone. In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman's late-life crisis, listeners follow Aaliya's digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Colorful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya's own volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left. A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the prodigiously gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of one woman's life in the Middle East.
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When I picked up this book on Monday, I thought I might be in the mood for just this sort of thing, having seen glowing comments about it on a book site I frequent, and then the book summary itself convincing me completely I was in for a good time. The narrator Aaliya Saleh is a 72 year-old Lebanese woman who's lived all her life in Beirut. Though she was married off at 16 'to the first unsuitable suitor who came along', she ended up divorced by her impotent husband and childless 4 years later, rejected by her family and all but friendless, but always sustained by her great passion for literature, which also led her to develop a passion for music. The novel is told as a kind of memoir where she holds a long meandering monologue about herself, her youth, the civil war years, her current situation, the books she's read, the music she's listened to, and explains why she's spent the better part of her life translating 37 foreign-language books into Arabic starting from French or English translations (translations of translations), then putting the finished text in a box and sealing it away. On the day she starts her narration, her oldest half brother has just dropped by with their elderly insane mother, demanding that Aaliya take her in, a task she narrowly escapes, but an incident that leaves he shaken nonetheless.
From the outset, the book had all the elements which should have made for a very appealing reading experience, but very early on, I found myself repelled for all kinds of reasons which I am not sure I can detail without sounding petty. I started listening to the audio version, and found that narrated out loud, Aaliya came off sounding like an insufferable literary snob, with continual quotes from books and philosophers (which should have appealed, but didn't) and a strong tendency to complain about everything and everybody. I though if I switched to paper or an ebook edition, I might find her interesting rather than disdainful and annoying, and probably take lots of notes along the way about all these great books I should add to my wishlist and tbr.
So I switched to the kindle version, but still could not get comfortable with the novel. For one thing, I wasn't buying Aaliya at all as a character, and just seemed to hear the author's voice coming through loudly, very much a male voice to me. For another, I was displeased with the narrator's conversational tone, in which she constantly addresses the reader directly ('don't you think that's annoying? I certainly do') and makes too many apologies for veering off course. In short, I was too annoyed to enjoy the ride, and decided life was too short to spend it with an unlikeable 72 year-old trying very hard to be ornery like some of her favourite authors. Unconvincing, and pointless is what kept beeping in my head, and I dropped it. I know beyond a doubt that most lovers of great literature will find satisfaction here. I felt sure I would love this book, and it certainly had all the right ingredients, but ultimately I think Alameddine and I would not have a good time having tea together. For one thing, I happen to like putting milk in my excellent Earl Grey blends (a reference you will understand once you've read the book). I'm okay with the fact I'll probably be among a very small minority that is not completely won over by this one.