Recently I’ve Read … Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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Hausfrau is the debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum. Anyone familiar with either Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina will recognise this book as a modern take on these tales of bored, trapped wives.

In this instance, the unhappy wife in question is Anna Benz, an American living a priveleged life in Zurich with her husband, Bruno, and their three children – sons Charles and Victor, and baby daughter Polly.

On the surface, Anna lives a blessed life. But underneath is a well of discontent. Her marriage is not a happy one and her relationship with her children is complex; she finds it difficult to love Victor in particular. After several years in Switzerland, Anna still hasn’t made any friends or learned Swiss German. She has never worked, doesn’t hold a driver’s licence, and doesn’t have her own bank account. Anna is sleepwalking through her life, desperately trying to find meaning and purpose through her sessions with her therapist, Doctor Messerli. She also attempts to escape her increasing despair through a string of extra-marital affairs.

So far, the stage seems to be set for a novel that engages with thought-provoking themes like the pressure of needing to be the perfect wife and mother, alienation and despair, identity.

Unfortunately, Hausfrau is never able to provoke much thought at all due to an underlying flaw: translating a 19th century tragedy to a modern day setting just doesn’t work. Perhaps it is possible for a 21st century, Western woman to be trapped in the same way that Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are. But it is highly unusual and thus requires some explanation: why hasn’t Anna got a bank account? We learn so little about the protagonist that we never get to know why she has so little independence, why her marriage is failing, and how she became so isolated. This lack of explanation leads to a lack of conviction: it is impossible to believe in Anna or her story. Both are 19th century literary constructs that have not been updated and thus cannot convince in a modern day narrative.

The novel’s moral code hasn’t been updated either: it, too, is dreadfully Victorian. Anna is punished in the most dreadful, Thomas Hardy-esque way for having sex outside of marriage. In a 21st century novel, this is hideously jarring.

Hausfrau is atmospherically claustrophic, moving as it does between a limited set of restricted locations: the classroom where Anna belatedly learns Swiss German, the office where she undergoes therapy, the bedroom where she conducts illicit affairs. The prose style, as many other reviewers have noted, really grates, though: it is horribly contrived and self-conscious. This ponderous tone adds to the sense of detachment and chilliness pervading the novel. Characters don’t have to be likeable  – and this lot never would be in a million years – but they do have to feel real, at least in domestic dramas like this. Here, though, we are reading about constructs not people, we are reading dialogue not conversation.

Ultimately, in a book so much concerned with language and translation, this novel shows that translating 19th century characters and tropes directly to a 21st century setting just doesn’t work.

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