Anna was a good wife, mostly . . .
Anna Benz lives in comfort and affluence with her husband and three young children in Dietlikon, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich. Anna, an American expat, has chosen this life far from home; but, despite its tranquility and order, inside she is falling apart.
Feeling adrift and unable to connect with her husband or his family; with the fellow expatriates who try to befriend her; or even, increasingly, her own thoughts and emotions, Anna attempts to assert her agency in the only way that makes sense to her: by engaging in short-lived but intense sexual affairs.
But adultery, too, has its own morality, and when Anna finds herself crossing a line, she will set off a terrible chain of events that ends in unspeakable tragedy. As her life crashes down around her, Anna must then discover where one must go when there is no going back . . .
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, was published in hardback by Mantle on 26th March (also available for kindle). It was another of those books I was attracted to by several of those “books you must read in 2015” articles. The other thing that attracted me – ok, I’m shallow! – was the thoroughly beautiful cover I’ve used to head up my review. I think this must have been the US cover: the hardback cover in the UK is now something a great deal more grey and industrial, which seems a shame. I rather liked the exceptional beauty on the outside of what proved to be, in many ways, a very difficult and uncomfortable read.
My first reaction to this book was “didn’t like it at all” – I recorded my three stars on Goodreads, decided to review later, moved on to my next book. But what I hadn’t bargained for was the way in which this book stayed with me. After finishing it, it was in my thoughts even more than when I was reading it – rarely has a book refused to let me go the way this one did. So I went back to Goodreads and gave it five stars… I’d still say I didn’t really enjoy it, but I’m happy now to concede that it was really quite a read.
I’m not sure how to describe this book in a way that will make you want to try it. Anna has to be one of the least likeable women ever on whom to pin a story: her passiveness is massively frustrating to read about, you want to shake her and shout at her to do something – anything – about her situation. Although her life is outwardly comfortable, Anna just seems unable to feel anything – we follow her through the meetings with her therapist, the German classes she attends to help her communicate, through engagement with friends and family. In her attempts to “feel”, we have graphic descriptions of the sexual affairs she engages in – but there’s nothing erotic about the descriptions, just something rather sad, empty and emotionless. Overall, it’s a very uncomfortable portrayal of depression – this is so much more than dissatisfaction with a life of privilege or the difficulties of living in a country where language is only one of many barriers to communication. At one level, there is a simple message here that the bad woman Anna is must be made to suffer for what she does – and she really does suffer. But that seems over simplistic – why doesn’t anyone, at any stage, try to help her?
The author is a poet – and, whatever you think of the book, you’d have to admit that it’s quite beautifully written. I loved the exchanges with Anna’s therapist, but what I liked most of all was the way in which lessons learned at the German language classes – all around tenses, moods, the active and passive – are translated to apply equally to Anna’s life.
I’ve rarely struggled like this with a review. I’ve read a few on-line ones by other people, just to see what others were saying – and I’ve rarely seen a book that’s divided readers to such a degree. If you do try it, I’ll be very surprised if you’ll reach the end and say you enjoyed it – you might not even like it. But, if it affects you as deeply as it affected me, I guarantee you won’t forget it.
My thanks to netgalley and the publishers for my advance reading e-copy.
Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of several collections of poetry and her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, as well as its sister anthology, The Best American Erotic Poems, 1800-Present. She is the winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize and recipient of two NEA literature fellowships. A member of the core faculty at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program, she lives and writes in Austin, Texas.