I’m not sure whether I should be reviewing Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel ‘Hausfrau’ (the German for ‘housewife’) yet, as it’s not due to come out until May 2015. It’s the only book I’ve been pleading with publishers and publicists to send me an advance copy, because I felt I was born to review it. After all, it’s about the emptiness of an expat woman’s life in neatly-boxed-in, high-quality-of-life-is-assured-if-you-stick-to-the-rules Switzerland… Ring any bells? I may live just across the border in France now, but it’s still something I know both from personal experience and through my work.
In fact, I’d started planning a novel based on my experience as a ‘trailing spouse’ and was convinced that Essbaum had written that book. That turns out not to be the case (my mind is more filled with murderous intent than hers, obviously), but what a moving read it has been! Add to this the fact that Essbaum is an acclaimed poet and this is her debut novel, and you have pretty much all of my reasons to admire her (and be just a wee bit envious). Here is the blurb:
Anna Benz, an American woman in her late thirties, married Bruno, a Swiss banker, and made a new life with him in Dietlikon, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich, where they live in comfort and affluence with their three young children. But just as the neat and tidy exterior of Zurich and Dietlikon obscures the darker, more complicated aspects of living in Switzerland so is Anna, despite the tranquility and order of her domestic life, falling apart inside.
Described as ‘a literary page-turner with echoes of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina’, it also deals with themes such as loneliness, a woman’s quest for personal identity (apart from that of wife and mother), culture shock, alienation and the need for beauty in one’s life (which leads us to search for it in all the wrong places). I will review it in more detail closer to the release date, which will almost certainly involve some re-reading. No bad thing, since I gulped this down in just two evenings!
While I was waiting for the ARC of ‘Hausfrau’, however, I wrote a poem about Anna Karenina, which fits in rather well with the atmosphere of this novel. Here it is in its unedited first draft:
She walks into the station as if
nothing could reach out or jostle
her intent; as if
the icy sheen on her forehead
gives her an armour of aloofness, invisible
Her foresight is complete, her pockets emptied of clues.
No noise to pierce her eardrums, she glides through crowds
erect and poised.
Her spine gains inches as if
the stone-weight of family has left her shoulders.
She drifts up the staircase, and crowds part
at the gauntness of her stare.
First up, then down,
directions cease to matter
if the journey’s end is one.
She’ll catch a moment when
they’re wrapped up in their small partings, their music and their emails,
their lives overwhelmed with tasks.
and she takes flight.
The screech of that train
branding scarlet letters on herds
trapped in search for romance.