‘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)

Husbands in books, from bad to worse

by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt
by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

I did try to find good husbands, honest, but bad husbands are obviously overrepresented in fiction, unhappy families being so much more interesting. So here they are – stern and distant, abusive and alcoholic, the kind of men who make a prison of marriage and double as the gaoler.

It was this passage from Alice Munro’s short story What is Remembered that first set me on the quest for husbands in books. In a few short lines it tells us everything we need to know about gender roles in marriage in a particular class at a particular time. Makes me glad I was born in the 1970s and missed everything up to and including the Mad Men era.

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.

This next excerpt comes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I reviewed in my last post but I’m allowing myself to dip into the novel again because I find this such a chilling fictional account of domestic violence. Tartt is nothing if not restrained; we had to wait until page 588 to find out this important information about our narrator. This childhood memory surfaces as the alliance with his group of friends is unravelling under the strain of covering up a murder.

I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbours were building an addition to their house; later he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as a wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

Going back to the nineteenth century and over to Russia, here is a moment in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when Anna’s husband Karenin is in his study mulling over how to reprimand his wife for openly flirting with Vronsky at a social gathering.

He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental exercise foreign to Karenin.

And what he would say to his wife took shape in Karenin’s head. As he thought it over, he grudged having to expend his time and intellect on such domestic matters. But, in spite of that, the form and sequence of the speech he had to make shaped themselves in his head as clearly and precisely as if it were a ministerial report.

The final bad husband in our hall of fame today is Charlie van der Linden from On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a lovely book about adultery. Actually Charlie is not such a bad guy, more of a mess, and he does love his wife Mary.

It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practised. It was a failure to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep could pull him on to the main line of the day, especially if followed by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.

There is one more awful character who should be featured here but I don’t have a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. If I did I would be scouring the pages for a damning description of the awful Edward Murdstone who tyrannised David’s mother (for once a wicked step-father!), sent her son away, ruined her health and inherited her property.

Any other contenders folks?

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.