Aaliya Saleh has her share of worries, but a fading memory isn’t among them. The 72-year-old narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s restlessly intelligent “An Unnecessary Woman”(Grove Press, 291 pages, $25) has the complete works of Nabokov, Rilke, Donne and many others on file in the card catalog that is her mind.
“I know Lolita’s mother better than I do mine,” says Aaliya, who lives in self-imposed seclusion in Beirut.
Her perspective is the product of decades spent working in a bookstore, and countless spare hours devoted to crafting a literary trove that will never be read.
Aaliya is an artist without an audience. Employing her own idiosyncratic methods, she translates English and French texts into Arabic. She’s been at it for decades, even as terrorism and wars shook her city. Recently, she finished W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz,” and she’s about to start Roberto Bolano’s “2666” (in addition to an impressive work ethic, she has great taste). But Aaliya shares her work with no one.
“I’m committed to the process and not the final product. I know this sounds esoteric … but it’s the act that inspires me, the work itself,” she says. “Once the book is done, the wonder dissolves and the mystery is solved.”
For Alameddine, it’s risky to invest so much in a character whose very existence is a devotional poem to Serious Literature. But what makes “An Unnecessary Woman” such a convincing tale is his ability to ground the novel’s heroine in a set of real-world concerns and resentments. For her part, Aaliya can be exceedingly mean-spirited, and she’s prone to the odd political rant — some of her comments, if voiced by a politician, would cause an international incident.
An acclaimed author of several works of fiction and a resident of the United States and Beirut, Alameddine does his most nuanced writing in sections that chronicle Aaliya’s important — and invariably doomed — relationships.
Among them: Her arranged betrothal — she was just 16 — to an older man she describes as an “impotent insect.” “Marriage,” she deadpans, “is a most disagreeable institution for an adolescent.” The insect soon scurried away, and though she was glad to be rid of him, her divorce marked Aaliya as an outcast in a conservative society and contributed to a growing rift with her family.
Her most formative bond, however, was with a woman named Hannah. Years ago, Aaliya explains, she and Hannah found solace in their shared sense of outsiderdom and their love of books read aloud. Though Alameddine makes clear early on in the novel that the relationship is headed for a painful end, theirs is nonetheless a tender and exquisitely rendered love story.
“My voice had no home until her,” Aaliya says.
In a novel full of elegant, poetic sentences, this might be the most wonderful of the bunch.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.