“Shame is psychic extortion”, Doktor Messerli answered. “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise”.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Pg.6
Hausfrau was one of the first books I bought when I moved to Bratislava. I found it in the English section of the huge bookshop-cafe that lies on the main shopping street, Ochbodna, and which has subsequently become my second home since having no internet (and no intention of getting it) in my apartment. Bookshops are nothing to write home about in Bratislava. They all have the same paltry English section with the obvious trashy bestsellers, but Martinus has an excellent cafe with dependable wifi and delicious cake! Plus, I always manage to find one or two books that I can potentially buy.
Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel tells the tale of an American woman living in Switzerland, just outside of Zurich in a small, unremarkable but quintessentially Swiss town. Married to a Swiss banker with two sons and a daughter, Anna lives the life of a bored, middle-class housewife. Having resided in Switzerland for over nine years, she is still struggling to feel at home. Language barriers, cultural differences and past regrets hinder Anna’s ability to settle into the life she has made for herself. She is restless and stuck in perpetual boredom – like Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary – but at the same time she is maddeningly passive.
Hausfrau opens in the middle of an affair. An affair that is almost superfluous to Anna; just one of a few she has had over the years and will continue to have. There is nothing significant about Archie, the Scottish guy from her German class. He just offers a distraction from her bored existence. Interjected throughout the narrative are Anna’s psychiatric meetings with Doktor Messerli. Whether these meetings occur in chronological order, it’s hard to tell. At times they feel almost dream-like, unreal, as if Anna is imagining them.
‘Psychoanalysis is expensive and it is least effective when a patient lies, even by omission. But analysis isn’t pliers, and truth is not teeth: you can’t pull it out by force. A mouth stays closed as long as it wants to. Truth is told when it tells itself’.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Pg.30
It is unclear, for a while, what exactly Anna’s secret is. Essbaum drops hints, slowly unravelling her protagonist’s story to the point where the reader is unsurprised by Anna’s past actions. They seem perfectly plausible for a woman so absorbed in her own listlessness and boredom.
‘It was a story she’d told only to herself, but had repeated so often it was rote. The only thing that ever changed was the tenor by which she told it: sometimes with a sympathetic bias, others with hysteria’s rancid theatrics, and yet other times with a harlot’s detached sangfroid. Occasionally it brought her comfort. More often than not it made her queasy, it hurt her heart (everything always hurt her heart). But whether through sorrow’s shiny tears or memory’s glazed and hazy panes of glass, Anna was resigned to a progression of unalterable facts’.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Pg.79
Yet, there seems to be no autonomy, desire or passion in Anna’s only outlet – extramarital sex. She recognises the effect she can have on men and then allows them to act. Throughout it all she remains passive. In order to ‘survive’, she ‘self-destructs’ by choosing not to be present in her life.
As Anna rightly foreshadows at the beginning of the novel, ‘all things move toward an end’. As we near the climax, things begin to spiral out of control and, again, Anna is helpless to stop anything. The story takes a surprisingly dark turn. The small tale of a bored housewife, that I had initially taken for granted, suddenly becomes a whole lot more serious as we near the ending. I was left in shock, though I’m not entirely sure Essbaum was able to pull it convincingly.
‘It’s an otherworldly moment when the curtains behind which a lie has been hiding are pulled apart. When the slats on the blinds are forced open and a flash of truth explodes into the room. You can feel the crazing of the air. Light shatters every lie’s glass. You have no choice but to confess’.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Pg.268
There were a number of factors that made Hausfrau an unsatisfying and uncomfortable read for me. I frequently found it quite fractured and disjointed, though full of beautiful one-liners and phrases. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Essbaum’s basis is in poetry and Hausfrau was her first published novel.