Hausfrau tells the story of housewife, Anna Benz, who lives outside Zurich with her husband, Bruno, and their three children. Anna, who is American, is unable to drive and cannot speak either German or Swiss German.
I finished the book last week and immediately wanted to re-read it (I did). There were a number of things which appealed to me about it. I loved the Swiss setting and, as I have known people who have lived the ex-pat life in Basel for many years, it was easy for me to substitute the references. One of my friends who lived there also didn’t drive or learn the language and I remember the issues that this raised.
Anna is a strange woman. When the novel opens she is clearly unhappy with her life and, perhaps more importantly, with herself. This leads her into affairs with various men, most of which she embarks on impulsively and extremely quickly. One of these has taken place before the novel opens. It is clear that this was a significant relationship for Anna, the loss of which she has not got over. Anna sees a Jungian psycho-analyst weekly, and the reader is privy to some of the questions and observations of both Anna and her analyst. In addition, she has finally enrolled for German lessons. There are repeated sections which explore the relationship between language (specifically grammar and vocabulary) and concepts. Having studied French and German at university I found these explorations fascinating. Other sections meditated on how language and thought might be inter-connected. I was interested in these also as this is something which Psychology considers. In addition a number of philosophical questions are raised, and many psychological ones. I found all of these utterly transporting.
I think that Hausfrau is an extremely brave book. Essbaum has taken a number of risks and has, it would seem, stuck to her guns and written the book she wanted in the way she wanted. Anna is not particularly endearing. She is self-destructive, self-regarding and deceitful. Whether these traits have arisen as a result of her unhappiness, or whether it’s how she is, is interesting to consider. It is indisputable that Anna’s actions and behaviour hurt others – in the way that many people who are unhappy, sadly, are unable to stop themselves from hurting others. But I didn’t find her irritating, and I didn’t see her as ‘a bored housewife’. I felt extremely sympathetic towards her. She came across as someone who was lost, who did want things but was split off from many of her own feelings, desires and motivations, perhaps as a result of depression, to the extent that she didn’t really know what she wanted. Her day-to-day existence seems to be one of anxiety and suffering and dissociation. To this extent I see her as immobilised by many of her feelings rather than globally passive. Anna has been compared to other characters in literature who have greater passion than her, and less passivity. I think this is a bit unfair: Essbaum wasn’t writing those stories. She was writing a different one.
Some of the sections with detail on Zurich and Dietlikon (where Anna lives), language, and Anna’s psycho-analysis may not appeal to everyone. For me there was a bit too much geographical and ‘tourist’ information but it’s clear from what the author has said about the book that this information is important to her. Everything else I found completely delicious. Some of it didn’t add to the plot or characterisation but I didn’t mind at all as I simply found it interesting. Much of Essbaum’s writing is lovely. There are phrases, images, metaphors which made me hold my breath. There is quite a bit of jumping around in the narrative and timeline, and between various parts of the story. Sometimes this jars in books, and pulls the reader out of the story, but I didn’t find this with Hausfrau.
It isn’t a plot driven novel, nor particularly character driven in my opinion. It is Anna’s story and I would describe it as a theme driven book. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plot. There is. But it is quite leisurely and takes a back seat to themes. The events which unfold felt inevitable in their nature. Anna is hurtling out of control, taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. As I was reading I sensed that something bad was going to happen. What I loved about Hausfrau was that it made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. I was also aware of thinking that there were a number of directions the plot could go in and would have been happy with several of these. The above may sound quite analytical and neutral. All I can say is that Hausfrau is an extraordinary book. It kept me spellbound for several days. It left me completely breathless and unable to move.
Vicky Newham © 2015