Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

Anna Benz, an American, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their young children in Dietlikon, Switzerland – ‘the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led’. Anna feels isolated for a number of reasons – she doesn’t drive, she doesn’t speak much German and barely any Schwiizerdütch, she doesn’t have a bank account. When Anna’s psychotherapist asks asks if she’s ‘ever considered or attempted suicide’, she asks her to ‘Define “attempt”’.

She’d met this stranger in her German class. But Anna – his cock’s been in your mouth, she reminded herself. He’s not really a stranger anymore. And he wasn’t. He was Archie Sutherland, Scotsman, expatriate, and, like Anna, language student. Anna Benz, Language Student. It was Doktor Messerli who had encouraged her to take the German course (and, by a backspin of redoubtable irony, it was Bruno who’d insisted she see a psychotherapist: I’ve had enough of your fucking misery, Anna. Go fix yourself, is what he’d said to her).

Anna and Bruno spend most evenings in solitude – him in his office; her reading, watching television or walking up the hill behind their house. While they begrudgingly seem to love each other, they are not in love. It was Bruno who wanted children and wanted to move to Dietlikon, his home town, to provide a safe, stable upbringing for them. Anna is terrified of becoming a mother:

Still, Anna got pregnant. And then again and then again. It seemed to just happen. She never said Let’s do this and she never said Let’s not. Anna didn’t say anything at all…Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon rule. Where the wind blew, she went. This was Anna’s natural inclination.

It’s no surprise then that within minutes of Anna’s first language class, Archie has flirted with her across the table, she’s decided she likes the bus he’s driving and at the end of the class, she’s telephoned Ursula, her mother-in-law, to tell her she’ll be late back for the children and followed Archie to flat for ‘an hour and a half of uninhibited sex’.

On Tuesday and again on Wednesday Anna followed Archie home after class. On Thursday and Friday, they skipped school altogether.

Hausfrau weaves together Anna’s life with Bruno, the children and Ursula; her visits to Doktor Messerli; the language class, and her affairs. There is also a friendship with a woman expatriate, Mary (whom she meets at the language class) which is fairly one-sided.

No doubt a significant proportion of the discussion around this book will be about Anna being unlikeable: she’s passive; she leaves her children with her mother-in-law while she has sex with her lovers, she spurns female friendship (or indeed, any friendship). But it’s hard not to believe that if the sex of the protagonist were reversed, it would barely raise an eyebrow, never mind pages of discussion.

There are many impressive things about Hausfrau: the quality of the writing; the philosophical thoughts and the musings on language. Anna often poses questions to Doktor Messerli such as ‘“What’s the difference between passivity and neutrality?”’ and ‘”What’s the purpose of pain”’ while the thoughts on language take a variety of forms – the language class itself, the way one of Anna’s lovers speaks English, and comments that form part of the narrative which may be the narrator’s comments or might be free indirect speech. This one early in the novel pretty much sums up Anna’s character and hints at what’s to come:

Only in the present tense is the subject married to its verb. The action – all action, past and future – comes at the end. At the very end, when there is nothing left to do but act.

Hausfrau is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, it’s an outstanding debut and I can’t wait to see what Jill Alexander Essbaum writes next.

 

 

Thanks to Mantle for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

  1. I believe marriage is always a complicated, unfathomable thing. and I think this book can really picture that, however it portrays Anna’s character. love your review!

  2. Great review – and SO true: if the sex of the protagonist were reversed, nothing would be said – he’d be “busy”; “have a demanding job”; “needs some time to let off steam” (not by having sex, obv, but if, say , he claimed he needed a few beers. Things will NEVER be equal when it comes to family life/child raising. I’m looking forward to reading this, to see what I make of Anna. I can’t get a grip on her, no matter how many reviews I read! This one is brilliant, Naomi.

    • Thank you. Your comments make me think you’ll love it. Your line about Anna is interesting, I wonder if her passivity makes her difficult to define. How do you show someone who follows what others tell her to do?

  3. Marvelous review, Naomi, thank you. Very interesting to consider what this book would be like with a male protagonist. The great/charismatic fuckers of literature do all seem to be male… (Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater springs to mind.)

    We had a great review of this in Quadrapheme recently; our reviewer also thought that the passivity was a major component of Anna’s character, and thought that Essbaum’s use of the language class was thematically very clever, as a focus on language reinforces ideas about subject/object, acting vs. being acted upon, etc., which ties in to the question of how much Anna is responsible for what she does. (Even as a linguistic construction, the phrase “what she does” has implications!) The link to our review is here: http://www.quadrapheme.com/fiction-review-hausfrau/

    • Thank you. That’s an excellent review – so many quotations that I almost used too, there are so many good/pertinent lines in the novel. I like the mention of Fifty Shades and that the reviewer points out that this isn’t about sex. Oh and it reminded me of the phone call with Stephen and my heart broke for her all over again.

      • “A way to forge identity where there is none” is definitely one of the saddest descriptions of promiscuity I’ve ever heard of. (Not, I would add, that promiscuity per se is the sign of a broken soul, but Essbaum captures a version of it that does rest on this aimlessness, and it’s heartbreaking, you’re right.) I’m pretty sure Hausfrau is going to be HUGE…

  4. Lovely review, Naomi, and I did enjoy the novel – despite my usual glut of reservations about the therapist – thanks for recommending it to me. Regarding the judgemental attitude towards Anna’s affairs because she’s a woman, I see it slightly differently. I think the compulsive sex and her neglect of her children are symptomatic of her distress and alienation and, in a way, to be pitied.
    Like you, I really enjoyed the language stuff – it was a great way of getting into her mindset.
    (BTW, my review is coming later with a Q&A with the author)

    • Thanks, Anne. Ah, yes, therapists rarely behave as in reality in novels, do they? I completely agree with you but I think ‘society’ judges women through the lens of motherhood and people feel uncomfortable when a woman who’s had children has affairs as if she’s abandoning them rather than her partner. There’s some saintly ideas attached to motherhood as if a woman should endure misery rather than find her own happiness and be a mother. I love how Essbaum addresses this with THAT scene.

      Looking forward to your thoughts and the Q&A, I find Essbaum really interesting in interviews.

  5. See, now I’m intrigued. Great review if what sounds like a great book. Given how much I enjoyed The Woman Upstairs with its supposedly unlikeable female, I think I’d enjoy this one.

  6. Best book I’ve read this year. So clever on so many levels.

    Dismayed by publicist/ reviewers comparing it to Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey – grossly misrepresents the book – attracts people who won’t necessarily enjoy it and alienates those who might!

    • Yes! Completely agree. I’m baffled as to why it’s appeared on so many ‘If you liked The Girl On the Train here’s what to read next’ lists. It’s not a thriller nor is it erotica. So frustrating.

      • I’ve noticed an increased tendency to make these comparisons and write them in the book blurbs, clearly it’s a marketing ploy, however I find them often so misleading, it’s a lazy tactic.

        • It’s easy to put avid readers off to I think. I’ve had a couple of things pitched to me that were compared to The Lovely Bones and then I need to know whether it’s really like The Lovely Bones because I hated that book! There seems to be an assumption that certain books are universally loved because they sold well.

  7. I think the best thing about this book is all the discussion it has stimulated. Discussion around stereotypes and mental illnesses are always a good thing.
    I didn’t actually find Anna unlikeable – I felt sorry for her, and wished for there to be some way for her to find happiness. She did frustrate me at times, though, like keeping back information from her doctor, and whiling away her time away from her children knowing that her mother-in-law would step in and help her out (a lot!). And, just to be clear, I would feel exactly the same way if Anna had been a man.

    • Yes, the discussion has been really interesting and varied.

      I can understand your frustrations but Bruno rarely spent time with the children either and he was the one who wanted them! I took it that the problem there was that although she loved them, it was the children who tied her to Switzerland; if she’d been with them wouldn’t her depression have played out more obviously in front of them? Would that have been better or worse?

      • Good point! But, if she was so concerned about her children seeing her depression, then why didn’t she try harder to overcome it? (Tell the doctor everything; if this doctor was not working out, try other doctors.) She seemed to me to not really want to do anything that was too much effort, including making friends. Like she knew where this was all going and couldn’t/didn’t want to stop it.
        It’s not so much the amount of time she didn’t spend with her kids that bothered me, but what she did instead, and the fact that she took advantage of her mother-in-law. But, it’s true, that the kids may have been better off spending less time with her, whatever the reason for it. Once again, it just makes me sad, and I wish that she had been able to find help, and I wonder why she couldn’t. Maybe sometimes people just get beyond help, like in All My Puny Sorrows. 🙁

        • Fair point. Yes, she’s completely passive until the end and oh, that horrible scene in the woods at the party. She has so little care for herself.

          I haven’t read All My Puny Sorrows but so many people have told me I should.

  8. Great review Naomi and particularly to hear you say it’s one of the best you’ve read this year. The role reversal and reader response to it creates interesting perceptions and responses and the use of language to highlight some of the themes. Was it eligible for the Baileys prize?

    • Thanks Claire. Yes, it was eligible, it was on my wishlist and I was only questioning again the other day why it’s not on the real list; I’m completely baffled. Imprints get three entries, I believe and it’s published by Mantle who mostly publish crime novels so I’m assuming it was eligible. I seem to recall seeing tweets from a couple of people at the publishing house hoping it was on the list…

  9. Ah, so pleased you liked it, Naomi! I personally liked it very much indeed, found the language beautiful and precise (used many of your quotations as well), but I thought maybe I was slightly subjective because of the ‘expat spouse in Switzerland’ element. It’s so difficult to admit to imperfection, to not functioning effectively in such a clockwork society, that I am sure that contributes to Anna’s depression. I’ve done a lot of coaching with expat wives and I can certainly see a ‘desperate housewives’ aspect to many of them, more painful perhaps than in the 1950s because these women have actually given up flourishing careers to follow their husbands around. (That was the one aspect I found a bit annoying about Anna, that she had no aspirations at all.)

    • Thanks, Marina. I must read your review now (I try not to read others until I’ve written my own). That sounds like interesting work. I can understand how giving up a career and moving to another country for your husband’s job could lead to depression and a desire to excel in the only place you have any control over. I can understand your irritation with Anna too – I don’t think I’d have behaved as she chose to but then I’ve always been ambitious. She didn’t seem to want anything for herself other than to be loved and desired by someone who didn’t want her. I wonder if she’d have been any different if they’d returned to America (or even if she’d returned alone)…

  10. A brilliant book on many levels & evoking many discussions. For me it’s how Essbaum has crafted this story – both style & structure are very effective and cleverly interwoven. Through other sites today I seem to be in the minority that I did care, very much, what happens to Anna and disliked Mary who most seemed to like… I thought she was actually quite manipulative. Hard to comment more without spoilers but certainly agree it’s a must read – and indeed a reread; I want to really explore and pick over the bones of this one to see what techniques Essbaum uses to produce such a compelling read.

    • Yes, it’s superbly crafted and definitely yields more in rereading, especially if you’re interested in technique. I taught Lord of the Flies a number of times as a secondary school teacher but it wasn’t until I taught it as part of an evening class while I was doing my creative writing MA that I realized how clever the structure was and how the first chapter reveals everything that’s going to happen. Essbaum reveals so much in the first few pages – including how the story will end. It’s very well edited, I think. As for the characters, I was certainly invested in Anna’s story. Not sure I cared about her particularly but I certainly didn’t dislike or judge her – I’m more likely to defend her than anything. Mary was looking after herself but not unkindly, I thought – she was lonely too. However, she’s not the sort of person I would care for as a friend but then I prefer my own company (and a good book!) to socialising!

      • I’m definitely in the minority as I thought Mary was unkind (seeing clues in her backstory & choice of reading material) I think she was jealous and manipulative and orchastrated ‘difficulties’ for Anna while all the time wearing the ‘Jungian’ perfect wife mask…

        Brilliant choice for book groups

  11. Pingback: Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications | The Writes of Woman