‘A bored woman is a dangerous woman’

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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 many of 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 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!

(Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

Five Days

After reading Five Days by Douglas Kennedy I now know what it’s like to be inside a toxic marriage. The miracle is how many people stay in failed relationships and it’s an interesting human weakness to examine.

The question could have been more compelling though if the main character Laura wasn’t so saintly and her husband Dan so despicable from beginning to end. Most husbands have some redeeming features!

This is a book of the economic downturn with a compelling portrayal of the financial struggle of the American middle class. For this reason it will resonate with a lot of readers in the United States and elsewhere. Another major point many readers will identify with is the disappointments of middle age – the sense of missed opportunities and time running out.

After the more exotic settings of his previous novels in places like Berlin, Paris and Hollywood, I like that Kennedy has set this story in such a low-key environment. Most of the action takes place in small-town Maine and a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Boston.

The book is a page-turner but unfortunately the strong plot is not always matched by great writing. The interaction between the Laura and her love interest Richard gets a little too sickly sweet for me. OK, the two of them are literature and language buffs and delight in finally meeting someone they can flirt with on an intellectual level but the constant synonym sparring and literary references get tiresome.

The fact that husband Dan is totally unsympathetic takes away some of the tension when Laura is faced with the choice of having an affair or not. Richard also has a horrible wife at home by his own account (or could this be what everyone says about their spouse when they are about to cheat?) so you feel no sense of protectiveness towards either of their spouses.

Kennedy squeezes the action inside five days, although they are not all consecutive so we do get to jump forward and view the outcome of the characters’ choices. There is quite a lot about Laura’s relationship with her children but as you don’t get to know the kids outside their mother’s adoring gaze, they don’t become very interesting as characters.

The best thing about this book is its depiction of the limitations people place on their lives. Kennedy actually says “don’t lock yourself into an existence that you don’t want”. Hopefully it will inspire some people to seize the moment. (On a side note I find it cruel that Americans get so little annual leave.)

Although Five Days fell a little short for me I remain a serious Kennedy fan – I’ve read everything of his so far and State of the Union is one of my favourite novels. I pushed really hard for my book club to choose this novel at our last meeting but it was voted down (we’re reading Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife instead). Looking back now I think it was for the best.