Fiction – hardcover; Mantle; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, Hausfrau, seems to be everywhere at the moment. I don’t normally succumb to hype, but there was so much “buzz” about this book I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I now wish I hadn’t bothered. This is a horrid, grubby story written in a plodding, pedestrian style. I truly don’t understand the appeal.
A bored housewife
The book focuses on Anna, the hausfrau (housewife) of the title, who is an expat American married to a Swiss banker. The couple lives in a suburb of Zurich and have three children: two young sons and a baby girl.
Outwardly, they look like the ideal family, but Anna is desperately unhappy, suffers from insomnia and rarely feels at ease in her own skin. She has lived in Austria for nine years but has never bothered to learn the language so hasn’t made any real friends. She’s also struggling with the idea of motherhood.
Anna hadn’t longed to be a mother. She didn’t yearn for it the way other women do. It terrified her. I’m to be responsible for another person? A tiny, helpless, needy person?
She’s not even sure she’s married the right man, because her relationship with Bruno is one-sided: they rarely speak (he hides away in his office when he’s at home) and together they don’t do much socially. Anna can’t drive and doesn’t have a bank account of her own, so her independence is limited. Yet Anna’s passivity has merit:
It was useful. It made for relative peace in the house on Rosenweg. Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She simply followed.
When she finally decides to go back to school to learn German, she sets off a chain of events that have long-lasting repercussions. Here, she meets Archie, an expat Scotsman, with whom she has a rather sordid affair. But as the story unfolds, we learn that this is not the first time Anna has been adulterous. Extramarital sex, it seems, is one way of making her feel alive.
I think my problem with this book was not so much the content — yes, there’s quite a bit of sex in it, but it’s written so coldly that it’s not exactly titillating — but the way in which the narrative plods along in pedestrian-like prose. I’ve read reviews describing the writing as “haunting”, “elegant” and “exquisite”, others say it’s written in a “cool European tone” but I think we must have been reading different novels. Essbaum is a poet, but her novel-writing style is far from lyrical: for most of the time it’s perfunctory, mechanical and wooden. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:
Two weeks later, on a Sunday, the last day of the month, Anna, Bruno, Ursula, and the children boarded a 10.00 a.m. train. They were on their way to Mumpf, a town in Kanton Aargau near Switzerland’s north border, where Daniela, Bruno’s sister, and her partner David lived. It was Daniela’s fortieth birthday. Taking a train often made more sense than driving. Today the choice was made by circumstance: with Ursula joining them they couldn’t all fit inside the car. The only inconvenience of the plan was two changes. David would meet them at Bahnhof Mumpf when they arrived.
On top of this, the author treats her readers as if they can’t think for themselves by spelling out every single thing, including all the metaphors:
‘There are two basic groups of German verbs,’ Roland said, ‘strong and weak. Weak verbs are regular verbs that follow typical rules. Strong verbs are irregular. They don’t follow patterns. You deal with strong verbs on their own terms.’ Like people, Anna thought. The strong ones stand out. The weak ones are all the same.
Even the bits of the story that focus on Anna’s sessions with a therapist are nothing more than too-obvious vehicles for getting certain messages across to the reader. Indeed, they’re about as subtle as a garbage truck roaring down a quiet residential street at 5 in the morning.
‘A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.’ Doktor Messerli spoke with grave sincerity. ‘A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.’
Aaaaargghhh! Can you hear me screaming from here?
There’s a couple of shocking revelations midway through the story that do add a frisson of excitement — let’s face it, the sex scenes don’t achieve that — but I find it hard to say anything particularly positive about Hausfrau. It just didn’t appeal on any level. Perhaps the best thing was the ending — and I’m not just talking about the final two sentences, which pack a real punch of the oh-my-I-didn’t-see-that-coming variety, it was the fact I could put the book down knowing I’d never have to pick it up again!
Clearly there’s an audience for these kinds of novels judging by all the five-star reviews on Amazon and all the buzz about it on Twitter, but I’m not it. If I wanted to read a book about a depressed (and repressed) married woman I’d simply reread Madame Bovary…