Swan Thieves

An Unnecessary Woman

by Rabih Alameddine

Overview: 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 thirty-seven 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, readers 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.

Gail Reid (02/21/15): This is the story of Aaliyah, a retired bookstore employee in Beirut whose only interests are books and her passion for translating them into Arabic for her own pleasure. Aaliya is solitary by choice. Her one friend has died years before; she has been divorced since age 20 from a loveless marriage; and her mother favored her half brothers more than her. For this reason, she thinks of herself as "an unnecessary woman" a term coined by the Nazis for individuals whose worth did not benefit or advance the values of the Reich.

There are many long passages, written in stream of consciousness where Aaliyah evaluates the books she has been reading over a lifetime and the translations she has embraced as she works on her one hobby.

Although I like a literary challenge, I found this book to have too much rambling and too many pretentious, intellectual references. It was a struggle to finish it but not everyone will agree with me because An Unnecessary Woman is a National Book Award finalist.
Rating: ***

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