Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau is a bleak novel about an unhappy, almost unfeeling, woman. It’s not a novel you have fun reading, but it is a novel you can’t stop reading, because despite the fact that’s not fun, it is very, very, very good.

American Anna has lived near Zurich for almost 10 years with her husband Bruno. She has three beautiful children, but there is something missing. Anna is unconnected from her life, has refused for years to immerse herself in the culture of Switzerland, has never learnt to drive so has to take trains everywhere, and has never learnt the particular version of German the people surrounding her speak. To fill the void, Anna embarks on an affair with a man from her German class, and over the course of three months, Anna’s life goes from cold to falling apart.

Hausfrau is split into three sections, one for each month of Anna’s life that we pass with her, but the timeline Essbaum’s novel spans is much, much larger. While it is clear what is happening each month, Essbaum purposefully keeps all other events less time-specific. We see snippets of conversation between Anna and her psychologist, Doktor Messerli, although we never actually sit in on a full session. These snippets have Anna analysing guilt, love, language, memory and more, all of which form themes in the book.

Memory is key to the novel, and there are hints to something significant which happened in Anna’s recent past and which she cannot let go of. It’s the only thing that seemingly elicits any emotional feeling within Anna, even her children don’t seem to give her much joy. And as Anna learns German, language becomes an ever more important part of the novel, with the multiple meanings of words taking on great significance. Essbaum cleverly weaves grammar and syntax into the novel, and it’s the kind of book that every time you reread it throws up something new you didn’t notice the first time round.

The actual plot of Hausfrau is deceptively simple, with Essbaum lulling you into a sense of security that this is a novel about a woman trying to reconnect. When a pivotal event happens, it’s all the more shocking and tragic because you’re not expecting it (I certainly wasn’t anyway). On the complete opposite end of the scale to the shock of that one thing, is the complete lack of shock at the ending. There is only one possible way for Hausfrau to end, but the way Essbaum builds to it is utterly brilliant, and there was a large part of me that didn’t want to believe what was going to happen until it did. It made me want to read both faster to get to the ending, and slower so that I wouldn’t have to face what was coming.

Hausfrau is one of those novels that absolutely earns the term unputdownable. Full of layers of clever plotting, sophisticated writing and just great storytelling, Hausfrau should be added to everyone’s to-read list.

Hausfrau is released in the UK on March 12, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Mantle. This did not affect my review.

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