Back in May, while meeting up with one my closest and longest known friends, Jenna, in Rome, she recommended the novel Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. Amused by the title and intrigued by Jenna’s brief synopsis, I downloaded it onto my Kindle as soon as Martin and I got home from our holiday.
Switzerland is an insular country, sealed at its boundaries and neutral by choice for two centuries. With its left hand it reaches out to refugees and seekers of asylum. With its right, it snatches freshly laundered monies and Nazi gold. […] And like the landscape upon which they’ve settled, the Swiss themselves are closed at their edges. They tend naturally towards isolation, conspiring to keep outsiders at a distance by appointing not one, two, or three, but four official national languages. (page 10)
I was hooked from the first few pages, in particular, from the moment I read the lines above. Perhaps it was the parallels that I could immediately draw between myself and the protagonist, Anna, (both expats living in the German part of Switzerland, introverted, husbands work in banking industry, unemployed, taking German lessons at Migros Klubschule), or perhaps it was the insights into a culture that I have been living in for almost a year and a half, but I wanted to devour each and every line of this novel from the moment I started reading.
This woman wants a friend. Anna recognized that want. It made her wince. Solitude was her anchor. A familiar misery, and anyway the safest most sensible approach. (page 47)
I will warn you though, this is not a “happy” novel. The protagonist, Anna, an American expat, living in Switzerland with her Swiss banker husband and three children, is severely depressed, disenchanted and disconnected from herself and those around her. She uses sex with different partners outside of her marriage to help cope with her life which has become unbearable. Many critics of the novel, focus on the extramarital affairs aspect of the novel, likening it to Fifty Shades of Grey or Desperate Houswives, however, I believe that these are shallow, unfair comparisons. The sex depicted is not glorified. At no point while reading did I ever think, “huh, this affair business sounds like fun. I should try it!” The sex is sad, violent, dirty and desperate.
‘It’s quite common for the subconscious to create intentional scenarios that force you to face something you’ve been ignoring. Your dreams might get louder and more violent. You may become forgetful or accident prone. Psyche will do anything to get your attention. She will sabotage your consciousness if she must.’ (page 201)
I usually tend to skim over narrative bits to get to the dialogue, but the “bits in between” were my favourite parts. Many times I found myself taken aback by how beautifully the narrative described certain feelings and reactions to situations faced by Anna. For the first time I even highlighted lines so I could go back and read them again and again.
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 in the room. You can feel the insanity in the air. Light shatters every lie’s glass. You have no choice but to confess. (page 268)
Of course, the Swiss are not too keen on the novel as it does not paint Switzerland in the most flattering light and from comments I’ve read from review sites it appears to be a “vegemite novel”. You either love it or hate it. I think it’s clear which side I’m on. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts. If not, I’d definitely recommend you give it a try.