Aaliya Saleh is a 72-year-old bibliophile growing old in Beirut. Divorced and childless, she is considered an ‘unnecessary woman’ by herself, her family and her society, but her secret yearly ritual of translating a novel into Arabic has given her life a ‘private source of meaning.’ For 50 years these translations have provided some blissful moments when she is ‘healed of all wounds,’ but they remain in crates in her apartment, unpublished. This simple tale of a shy bookworm, who upon reaching old age finds herself crying more often (‘I haven’t been able to wall off my heart completely’), admitting she is lonely (recalling the times she wished for someone to guide her exploration of classical music, she reminds herself ‘come back, come back, don’t go there’), and lamenting being a ‘speck’ (‘I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I thought I might have a small non-speaking role’), is made epic by its layers of literature, relationships and war.
The story is peppered with wonderfully bookish quotes and tales that Aaliya relates to her life, and which found me running to Wikipedia to find out more, such as the dark tale of Bruno Shulz and his mural, or the debate surrounding Constance Garnett and her early translations of Russian novels. Aaliya has replaced conventional relationships with the relationships she has with the books she reads: whilst admitting some nostalgia for childhood, she asserts that ‘but then I feel nostalgia…for how Anna Karenina sits on a train,’ she ‘knows Lolita’s mother better than I do mine,’ and in reading to avoid facing a significant bereavement she admits that ‘compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.’
But it was not always so – even if she remains uncared for by her narcissistic mother, who sides with the bullying half-brothers who want to boot her out of the sanctuary of her apartment, the story of her great friend Hannah – ‘the first person who wished to have me in her life’ – is a beautiful example of the power of female friendship: ‘we were two solitudes…who nourished each other.’ Also, the story of the women in her apartment block who form a trio of friends of which she is not part (the image of her hearing them at the morning coffee meet which she does not feel able to join is heart-breaking), but who come to her rescue during a crisis that initially spells doom, is another nice injection of sisterhood and allows the book to end on a high note. To me they were like a female version of the A-team, locked in a shed with four cabbages but coming out with a machine gun, which is every feminist’s dream really.
The story of the lives of her family and neighbours tells us much about the position of women in Lebanese society, and the trauma of the Lebanese Civil War threads through the novel as a gentle but constant reminder of how ordinary lives proceed within the extraordinary experience of war, which becomes embedded within a nation’s psyche: ‘life in Beirut is much too random. I can’t force myself to believe I’m in charge of much of my life.’ The tragedy of war is bound in the story of Ahmad, a bookworm from the Sabra refugee camp who Aaliyah allows to work in the bookshop she runs as she knows he cannot afford the books he yearns for, until Black September ‘convinced him that books would not open the door to his cell.’
The novel got under the skin of a war that I remember hearing about as an 80s child, but my contact with which was limited to the memory of watching a newly-released John McCarthy getting off the plane at Heathrow and wondering if it was appropriate to have a crush on someone who had been through such an ordeal (I decided that Joe from New Kids On The Block remained a safer option), or, later in my twenties, seeing Terry Waite on the concourse of Liverpool Street station, tucking into a hamburger, and wondering if it was inappropriate to say hello (our eyes met, and his gave me a sort of ‘four years in captivity – I deserve this burger’ look, so I respectfully left him to it). I don’t mean to sound flippant – my point is that a novel such as this can unravel the news reels that dominate our understanding of a conflict and help us to understand the human experience within. A very necessary woman indeed.