Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander EssbaumHausfrau (17 March 2015) by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly. So begins the tale of Anna Benz, the adulterous 'hausfrau' of the title. An American married to a Swiss banker, Anna describes and thinks of herself as a passive person (the word 'passive' is something of a motif in this book). She's lived in Switzerland for nine years, but knows only basic German, has no job, no 'hobbies', and no close friends. Most of her affairs are a matter of her going along with what men want from her ('like handing an open wallet to a thief'), and her marriage to Bruno happened in much the same way: 
Bruno turned to Anna and said, 'I think you would make a good wife for me. I think I want to marry you.' It was spur-of-the-moment and matter-of-fact. The idea crossed his mind and he spoke it aloud in the same way he might announce that he'd be up for watching a film... I agree, Anna thought. I would make a good wife. I would mostly make a good wife.
Sometimes, she doesn't seem to be fully present during sex; at other times, it's the only way she can access her own emotions. She has two sons and a daughter, despite never having been quite sure she wanted children: 'Anna hadn't longed to be a mother... It terrified her... Still, Anna got pregnant. And then again and then again. It seemed to just happen.'

That's a particularly apt quote because it seems that life always 'just happens' to Anna, and she lets it take its course without truly participating. She is 'mostly' a lot of things - a good mother, mostly; a good friend, mostly... It's within the bit that isn't 'good' that this story takes place, and that's where the messy, fascinating truth about Anna lives, too.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (US)Anna is seeing a psychotherapist, Doktor Messerli, who is trying to encourage her to be more active; to take control of her life. At Messerli's suggestion, she's also attending classes to improve her German. It's possible to read Hausfrau as one extended scene that moves between Anna's sessions with Doktor Messerli and her German lessons, with the rest as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It's not quite a stream-of-consciousness, but achieves a similar effect as scenes from Anna's life blend with her discussions with Messerli and the instructions of her German tutor, Roland; conversations cut into each other, so a question asked by one of Anna's friends might be answered by one of her therapist's observations, a 'lesson on conjugation' interrupted by a sex scene. Essbaum's background as a poet is obvious - there are passages of Hausfrau that read like prose poetry - but sometimes the language is as cold and sterile as Anna's repetitive life. This in itself works well, fitting beautifully with the icy setting.

I'd read mixed reviews of Hausfrau and that was why I put off reading it for months, despite having had a copy since March. A common criticism is that it's dull, that Anna's passivity is depressing and the small details of her days unnecessary; I suppose technically I can see why it might be boring to some, but it just didn't read that way to me. I'm not sure how Essbaum managed to make scenes of Anna picking out groceries at the supermarket thrilling, but she did. And of course (predictably) I loved Anna herself. She is deliberately, perhaps a little too conveniently, a blank slate - she's an orphan and isn't close to any other family members; her childhood and life in America prior to meeting Bruno is never really elucidated - but if you stick with the story, this proves to be crucial.

This is one of those books that's obviously been so meticulously planned and plotted that every detail has significance. Hausfrau's final scene achieves a perfect synchronicity. It becomes clear where Anna's story has always been leading; the blankness of her character, by this point, makes perfect sense. The story is brought full circle, and it's impossible not to think back to that ostensibly mundane opening, about how Swiss trains run on time and Anna's world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives. Hausfrau is a story about an empty marriage and multiple affairs, but it's also a philosophical novel that grapples with the ennui of a woman for whom being a 'hausfrau' isn't a necessity, but a choice offered to the privileged; whose behaviour can, therefore, be frustrating and hard to understand (not the affairs, but her inability and unwillingness to pull herself out of this gilded cage). On the surface, Anna is hardly a sympathetic heroine for modern female readers, something underlined by the way other female characters rail against her at various points, but Essbaum makes her story heartbreaking and compelling despite that.

I received an advance review copy of Hausfrau from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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