Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum at first appears to be the somewhat typical story of an unsatisfied housewife searching for meaning in her life and filling the void that has become her world with copious amounts of sex. Quite rapidly, though, the novel reveals itself as something much more discerning and intuitive.
Anna is the wife of Bruno: a woman with no driver’s license and no bank account, a self-proclaimed outcast American living in Switzerland. She has three children, one of whom she loves more than the rest, and another who holds for her the most painful part of her past.
Anna is constantly trying to convince herself of her own happiness and to make sense of her past decisions, as if granting herself pardon from her mistakes will erase them or make them easier to bear. It is obvious, though, that all of Anna’s internal warmongering, is nothing but a distraction from the fact that she cannot forgive herself or understand how and why her life has turned out the way that it has.
When we first meet Anna she has begun to see a therapist, Doktor Messerli a devout psychoanalyst, who serves no better purpose than to further reinforce Anna’s own submissive and subsumed nature. Ironically, Anna is not even truthful to her doctor, and we are compelled to stand in Anna’s lies as Messerli, often in a macabrely ironic way, tries to interpret Anna’s life with only half the details. Meanwhile, Anna goes about her life trying to divine significance, find the ability to feel, and understand her purpose in a world that has gone utterly gray.
Essbaum’s simplistic and yet deeply nuanced language lays the basis for the multitudinous layers running through the novel. Sentences are often short and terse, matter of fact and bitingly honest, while the metaphors of Hausfrau run in effulgence. Not only does the language surrounding Anna and her relationships directly correlate to those very relationships, but things as simple as the fact that Anna lives on a dead end speak volumes to the physical events in the book.
While the most potent drama of Hausfrau lies within Anna, there is an equally balanced physical component to the novel as Essbaum perfectly marries both internal and external conflict. We travel through Anna’s past, as well as her day to day life as she rides the train to her German language classes, has steamy sex with men in sheds, and confronts her husband and mother and law on a day to day basis.
Essbaum develops characters so tangible and situations so terrible it’s hard to accept that they are fiction. Even the worst of characters is so distinct and despicable that you want to know more about them. We move through the novel with Anna and feel her anguish, her pain, her annoyance with herself and we though we recognize that she is a woman utterly depressed and entirely lost we feel the sanity in all of her seemingly insane actions. A novel that at certain points will make you scream “no” and while at others it will burrow you deeper into your couch with “yes,” Hausfrau hits on every emotion in the human spectrum with a sheer brilliant aptitude.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to be my NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review of the text.