Hausfrau, Anna Karenina, a Poem and the Search for Identity

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:

DVDtalk

 

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

to mortals.

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.

One breath

and she takes flight.

The screech of that train

branding scarlet letters on herds

trapped in search for romance.

 

 

Novel No. 2 is waiting for you, Madam…

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that 'engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier'. Maybe that's what I need to find time to write?
luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that ‘engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier’. Maybe that’s what I need to find time to write?

Typical! It’s been a never-ending saga to put the finishing touches to Novel No. 1, for reasons too numerous and humiliating to mention, including but not limited to: lost keys, lost cheque books, parents’ evenings, family meltdown, holidays, work, homework, worrying about work, worrying about taxes…

I’ve been working (or should that be NOT working) on it for so long that I am now bored with it. And don’t all writers at conferences tell you that the first novel is best hidden in your bottom drawer, that it’s an exercise rather than a real publishing possibility?

So, for the past few days I’ve been toying with the idea for another novel. Still murder and mayhem, of course, still noirish in feel, just a completely different story, setting, characters. I’m at the mulling stage, but this much I know: it will be set among the expat community in a place like Geneva and will involve adultery, danger and of course a death or two. Perhaps a mild case of satire, too. I have to put to good use all those wonderfully surreal conversations I sometimes overhear outside schools or in cafés, don’t I?

After all, if I get this one really presentable, I can always go back to the previous one and slash my way through that jungle. What do you think of abandoning one project to move onto something new? My Puritanical workaholic ethic is telling me that is wrong, but at what point do I decide I am flogging a dead horse?