Rabih Alameddine's beautiful new novel is ostensibly about an elderly woman living alone in her Beirut apartment. Once married but quickly divorced, Aaliya appears to be, as the title says, "an unnecessary woman".
But Aaliya's solitude is filled with incident and wonder. She lives in a city whose name is synonymous with conflict and disorder. In Beirut it's perfectly normal for a spinster to don a pink tracksuit and pick up an AK-47 in defence of her abode.
The wonder in An Unnecessary Woman comes courtesy of Aaliya's voracious reading habits. The imagined worlds of writers as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Marcel Proust and Roberto Bolano are Aaliya's companions. She translates their books into Arabic, filling her home with three dozen translations - which no one else has ever read.
"I imagine looking at this room through a stranger's eyes," Aaliya says of her apartment. "Books everywhere, stacks and stacks, shelves and bookcases, stacks atop each shelf, I in the creaky chair … I have been its only occupant."
After the battles are over, Aaliya keeps a war "relic" on her desk: a copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, its cover scorched in the lower right corner. "I was reading the book by candlelight while people killed each other outside my window," Aaliya says. "I had an incendiary mishap, something that seems to have happened regularly to Joseph Conrad - the incendiary mishaps, not the burning cities."
Much of An Unnecessary Woman reads in this fashion, with Aaliya dialoguing with the lives and works of great writers while simultaneously recounting the events of her life, from girlhood to sunset years. Her reading varies from Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf to Javier Marias and Fernando Pessoa. Aaliya's taste in literature is so wonderfully varied, and Alameddine writes with such lucid and swift-moving prose, that his novel never loses momentum, even though Aaliya is a passive protagonist.
An Unnecessary Woman is an allegory about how notions of beauty and civilisation can endure in a world that periodically descends into barbarism and how women can persevere in a society that devalues them in both war and peace.
As Aaliya reads and observes the ageing of her family and neighbours, she can't escape the pain of loss. Her most enduring friendship is with another unmarried woman, a doomed, kindred spirit. But not even the worst possible end to that friendship can strip Aaliya of the unique sense of belonging that books and reading give her. To read is to be alone - and also to be immersed in the emotions and the ideas that make us human.