Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut is one of those books about which there’s been a good deal of eager anticipation in my neck of the Twitter woods. That way disappointment often lies but this twenty-first century take on Emma Bovary turns out to live up to all that’s been tweeted. Although Hausfrau is Essbaum’s first novel she’s an award-winning poet with a poet’s facility for language which makes this book a treat for those who appreciate a well-turned phrase as well as an absorbing piece of literature.
Thirty-seven-year-old Anna Benz lives in a well-heeled suburb of Zurich with her husband, Bruno, their two sons and a daughter. Anna is an American. She moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with Victor, their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant rather than a bystander. They’re a disparate bunch, from the irrepressible Mary – a Canadian whose hockey-playing husband has been head-hunted by a premier team – to Nancy, single, childless and happily independent. Archie is the one who captures Anna’s attention and almost immediately they begin an affair. This is what Anna does to feel alive – sex with men who are almost strangers, about whom she knows and cares next to nothing but who offer a few hours of escape from herself. Only one has meant something to her, and it’s with him that she thinks herself still in love. Over the course of three months, Anna finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core.
Anna leads a life so attenuated she has faded almost entirely into its background. She has just one self-absorbed friend, rarely exchanges even a greeting with other mothers at the school gate, has little connection other than politeness with her mother-in-law and feels that she and Bruno share only ‘a version of love’, a phrase which recurs throughout the novel. She doesn’t even have her own bank account. All these details are slowly revealed though vignettes from Anna’s psychiatric sessions, her various affairs, her class and her family life, with flashes of dreams and remembered moments from her affair with Stephen. Essbaum uses language strikingly: ‘Their husbands wore the jewellery of their beauty like elegant wristwatches’ describes bankers and their trophy wives to a T. Comparisons with Emma Bovary are inevitable, perhaps even expected: the stultifying social niceties of bourgeois Switzerland stand in nicely for nineteenth-century provincial France. Almost pitch-perfect then for me but one quibble: Doktor Messerli’s comments worked beautifully as a device for illuminating Anna’s personality but Jungian analysis seems an arduous task for one so passive. That said, this is an extraordinarily impressive debut. Had I read it before posting my Baileys Prize wish list I certainly would have included it.