You cannot be indifferent to Hausfrau, the new novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum set in Switzerland. It is a novel that will spark an array of contradictory reactions: You will loathe the main character Anna or you will weep for her. You will recoil at the graphic sex scenes or find them erotic; you will be intrigued by the psychological and linguistic analysis, or find it tiresome. Whatever happens, the power of the story will keep you reading to the end.
If you happen to be a foreign resident of Switzerland you will recognize the many the quirks and frustrations of living in this would-be paradise, ruthlessly exposed by Essbaum. But if you are in any way defensive of Switzerland, you will bristle at the Swiss bashing.
Hausfrau is the story of a woman who has lost her sense of self and abdicated responsibility for her life. She follows her Swiss husband back to his home town near Zurich to settle down and raise a family, but nine years on she still can’t settle in. She’s depressed and remains an outsider, to her husband, her children and her community – stifled by it all.
We already know that appearances can be deceiving but in Essbaum’s debut novel the gulf between appearances and reality is so wide it’s disturbing.
The world sees a well-dressed American mother living in an affluent bubble in Dietlikon, “the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led”. Anna Benz has accepted the age-old deal of husband (a banker, natürlich) making the money while she keeps house and looks after their three young children. The children’s school is metres away from their home and she has babysitting on tap thanks to her mother-in-law.
There is nothing Anna could not change in her life if she wanted to, as her psychiatrist tries to tell her again and again. Why the passivity, the indifference to her fate? That is the central question of the book and while we get many hints, it really remains unanswered because Essbaum provides scant details of Anna’s former life, apart from the fact that her parents were killed in a car crash.
The story begins when Anna is finally starting to make an effort by beginning a German language course and attending analysis sessions. At the same time she embarks on a reckless affair, seemingly on a whim.
Essbaum manages to successfully switch between different strands and moments in time – events at home, the language classes, memories, lovers’ trysts, therapy sessions, descriptions of Swiss culture, and a lot of Anna’s internal reflections. The scenes are short, some snapshots of just a few lines, but you instantly know where you are and the story is constantly moving forward.
The book is short too, a novella really, but it is not short on ideas and Essbaum manages to sketch interesting relationships through a few interactions. The children remain peripheral characters, as Anna is going through a phase of waltzing in and out of their lives.
I don’t know how readers with no familiarity with Switzerland will tolerate the level of detail, bordering on information dump that happens throughout the novel. I’d say most readers will find some element that doesn’t grab them – the analysis sessions, all the commentary on language structure and vocabulary, the cultural information, the sex scenes, the insomnia wanderings. But the whole is much greater than the parts because Essbaum has created a baffling compelling character in a story with powerful momentum.
Putting aside some people’s criticism of the moral message of the book – fallen woman pays for her sins – the story is gripping. Hausfrau was an intense and thought-provoking read and it left me with lots to think about.
I’d love to hear what other readers thought of this book, inside and outside Switzerland. Looking forward to reading your comments!