Hausfrau will be released on 26th March 2015, my thanks to Mantle for the complimentary copy
I read Hausfrau, the debut novel from Jill Alexander Essbaum, in one night last night and I'm still thinking about it today. It's the story of Anna Benz who, after getting pregnant, married the father of her child and emigrated to Switzerland. Several years later more children have followed, but Anna has never assimilated into Swiss society and stands on the outside looking in. I was struck by the duality of my response to Anna as a character. On the one hand, I felt like I didn't understand her at all, on the other I felt as though I understood her completely.
It flummoxed me that after nine years in the country she had never made a true effort at learning the language, a thing bound to isolate. So too, that she had not learned to drive, and does not have a bank account. Is this her own failure or unwillingness to fully commit to a life chosen by accident, or something else more sinister, engendered by her husband? The question hangs in the air, neither one or the other, perhaps both.
Anna, depressed, somehow got caught in a vicious circle, a psychological rut that she does not know how to escape. Alone becomes her default, no longer just her condition, but her coping mechanism, finding Swiss society insular, she goes through a private insulation of the self, rejecting as she feels rejected and her sense of self splinters.
My favourite quote was :
It is possible to lead several lives at once. In fact, it is impossible not to. Sometimes these lives overlap and interact. It is busy work living them and it requires stamina a singular life doesn’t need. Sometimes these lives live peaceably in the house of the body. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they grouse and bicker and storm upstairs and shout from windows and don’t take out the rubbish. Some other times, these lives, these several lives, each indulge several lives of their own. And those lives, like rabbits or rodents, multiply, make children of themselves. And those child lives birth others. This is when a woman stops leading her own life. This is when the lives start leading her.
Unsurprisingly, the stifling, controlled, isolation of her life has led to the need for an outlet. And in Anna's case the outlet becomes sex, but both this outlet and her inability to establish human connection will have dire consequences.
I found the way that it was written really interesting, and admired it, it was reminscent of Marilynne Robinson's recent novel Lila. Anna will, for example, be at a party, in one sentence and in the very next suddenly be in bed with her lover, or at her therapy session, ( with the worlds most cold, judgemental, therapist) before being recalled back to her present. The natural habit of suddenly getting lost in a thought, an echo, a memory, and no longer feeling present in the moment or the place. By writing it in this way, it feels like we the reader are inside her head, it also further reinforces Anna's disconnect, she can never fully function because she is never in the moment.
As well as the clear contrast to Anna Karenina, Hausfrau is very much in the same tradition as Doris Lessings 'The Grass Is Singing' and Ibsen's 'A Dolls House' as a reflection on the loss of identity through marriage.
A bleak tale, certainly, yet somehow, a compelling one.
2015 Challenge : A book that takes place in another country