Book Review: Hausfrau

Monday 27 April 2015 by

Pan Macmillan, Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum, BookHausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Published by Pan Macmillan

Haunting and elegant, Hausfrau is the exceptional debut novel from the prize-winning American poet, Jill Alexander Essbaum.

Anna was a good wife, mostly…

Anna Benz lives in comfort and affluence with her husband and three young children in Dietlikon, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich. Anna, an American expat, has chosen this life far from home; but, despite its tranquility and order, inside she is falling apart.

Feeling adrift and unable to connect with her husband or his family; with the fellow expatriates who try to befriend her; or even, increasingly, her own thoughts and emotions, Anna attempts to assert her agency in the only way that makes sense to her: by engaging in short-lived but intense sexual affairs.

But adultery, too, has its own morality, and when Anna finds herself crossing a line, she will set off a terrible chain of events that ends in unspeakable tragedy. As her life crashes down around her, Anna must then discover where one must go when there is no going back…

~*~

Firstly, the thing about books is you can make them your own. Everyone has books that mean more to them than anybody else, from their own perspective. We appropriate them, immerse ourselves in them, and connect with authors who we think ‘get’ us. Unless you live in London, or Paris, or the author’s imaginary world, then you probably aren’t often deeply familiar with the setting. So the best thing, for me, was that from the first page of Hausfrau I knew where Anna was. I know those train stations. I’ve spent many days in the past seven years in Thalwil, and there it was on the very first page.

This continues as we follow Anna to her German classes and back and on walks through the night, Swiss geography and Swiss sensibility expertly woven throughout the novel. I read lines out loud to my (Swiss) husband and we chuckled along at Essbaum’s perfectly nuanced turn of phrase. But the other side to this book, the life of Anna Benz, was wholly unfamiliar. An American expat, Anna lives with her husband and children in Switzerland, travelling around by herself via the ever-efficient, always on time, train network. Anna is deeply troubled and something or other – papering over each crack with intense, sexual affairs. Be clear, this is no Fifty Shades – not that I’ve read it (I’ve limited patience for indulgently terrible writing) but I’m pretty certain it’s not in the same league. It didn’t make me cringe in the way that many a chicklit writer has done, unflinching as it was. The scenes are real and sad and sexy and drive the story of Anna’s wandering heart and mind.

If you’ve read any other reviews, you’ll know this book isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s hard work at times. Anna is not always a sympathetic character. It can feel apocalyptic. On the odd occasion, I lost track a little of where in the story I was, particularly during Anna’s meetings with her therapist. But the language is wonderful, the story original and the novel itself is the perfect length, building to the conclusion without you feeling like you’ve been rushed through or left without answers. Ending clearly, cleverly, inevitably.

You can follow Laura on Twitter: @ljpearce1

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