Book Reviews

Hausfrau * Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna is a bored married woman. Anna is passive and loves to see other take charge of her life until she decides she wants to have an affair. Anna has multiple affairs and then her life spirals down until she needs to take control over her own actions once more. And she does..

hausfrau (1)

“IS THERE A DIFFERENCE between shame and guilt?” Anna asked. “Shame is psychic extortion,” Doktor Messerli answered. “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.”

Anna is an American housewife, married and living in Switzerland. She has three children and at least as many lovers. What lifts the novel from feeling like little more than homage is Anna herself. She’s cold, selfish and unusually ruthless. But we know from the outset that something awful is going to happen, and despite Anna’s impulses, you still dread it with every page you (compulsively) turn. The Girls-level frankness of the sex scenes set against the cleverly drawn Swiss banality add to the strangely hypnotic reading experience.

Hausfrau wears its comparisons to 19th-century novels of domestic ennui – Fontane’s Effi Briest, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – proudly on its sleeve. She’s “a good wife, mostly”, but like her literary predecessors, adultery offers her fleeting respite from the tedium of domesticity. As the novel progresses, echoes of Anna Karenina reverberate the most clearly, not simply in the mirroring of the central protagonist’s name, but also in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s plot. This, however, isn’t to say that Hausfrau is predictable; indeed, it’s testament to the skill of Essbaum’s writing that knowing Anna’s heading for the same tragic fate does nothing to detract from the impact of the narrative. Essbaum offers a piercingly astute psychological portrait of a woman sleepwalking to self-destruction. She should also be applauded for transposing what is essentially a 19th-century narrative trope onto a contemporary setting, and still have it resonate with reality and truth . . . Essbaum shows considerable dexterity in creating a heroine who remains sympathetic despite being exasperatingly apathetic. (The National)

Why I loved it? She’s so passive, so bored with life (married life that is). She is not pro-active. She enrolls in language courses nine years AFTER living in Switzerland and is annoyed that she can’t understand people when they speak the Swiss/German dialect. She is unable to drive and she has to be driven anywhere by her mother-in-law Ursula or her husband Bruno. She has three children but she is not a good mother. She shows affection, when she remembers, and usually goes out of the house for long walks instead of spending time with her children.
She is in the arms of a lover when a tragedy hits her family and even though she is feeling pain, she shows no desire to soothe her husband’s or her other children’s pain.

Anna is a strange woman, clearly unhappy with her life and, perhaps more importantly, with herself. This leads her into affairs with various men, most of which she embarks on impulsively and extremely quickly. One of these has taken place before the novel opens. It is clear that this was a significant relationship for Anna, the loss of which she has not gotten over. Anna sees a Jungian psycho-analyst weekly, and the reader is privy to some of the questions and observations of both Anna and her analyst which I thought were amazing!

What I loved as well were repeated sections which explore the relationship between language (specifically grammar and vocabulary) and concepts. Having studied French and German at university I found these explorations fascinating. Other sections meditated on how language and thought might be inter-connected. I was interested in these also as this is something which Psychology considers. In addition a number of philosophical questions are raised, and many psychological ones. I found all of these utterly transporting.

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