Anna was a good wife, mostly.
Anna Benz, an American, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their young children in Dietlikon, Switzerland – ‘the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led’. Anna feels isolated for a number of reasons – she doesn’t drive, she doesn’t speak much German and barely any Schwiizerdütch, she doesn’t have a bank account. When Anna’s psychotherapist asks asks if she’s ‘ever considered or attempted suicide’, she asks her to ‘Define “attempt”’.
She’d met this stranger in her German class. But Anna – his cock’s been in your mouth, she reminded herself. He’s not really a stranger anymore. And he wasn’t. He was Archie Sutherland, Scotsman, expatriate, and, like Anna, language student. Anna Benz, Language Student. It was Doktor Messerli who had encouraged her to take the German course (and, by a backspin of redoubtable irony, it was Bruno who’d insisted she see a psychotherapist: I’ve had enough of your fucking misery, Anna. Go fix yourself, is what he’d said to her).
Anna and Bruno spend most evenings in solitude – him in his office; her reading, watching television or walking up the hill behind their house. While they begrudgingly seem to love each other, they are not in love. It was Bruno who wanted children and wanted to move to Dietlikon, his home town, to provide a safe, stable upbringing for them. Anna is terrified of becoming a mother:
Still, Anna got pregnant. And then again and then again. It seemed to just happen. She never said Let’s do this and she never said Let’s not. Anna didn’t say anything at all…Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon rule. Where the wind blew, she went. This was Anna’s natural inclination.
It’s no surprise then that within minutes of Anna’s first language class, Archie has flirted with her across the table, she’s decided she likes the bus he’s driving and at the end of the class, she’s telephoned Ursula, her mother-in-law, to tell her she’ll be late back for the children and followed Archie to flat for ‘an hour and a half of uninhibited sex’.
On Tuesday and again on Wednesday Anna followed Archie home after class. On Thursday and Friday, they skipped school altogether.
Hausfrau weaves together Anna’s life with Bruno, the children and Ursula; her visits to Doktor Messerli; the language class, and her affairs. There is also a friendship with a woman expatriate, Mary (whom she meets at the language class) which is fairly one-sided.
No doubt a significant proportion of the discussion around this book will be about Anna being unlikeable: she’s passive; she leaves her children with her mother-in-law while she has sex with her lovers, she spurns female friendship (or indeed, any friendship). But it’s hard not to believe that if the sex of the protagonist were reversed, it would barely raise an eyebrow, never mind pages of discussion.
There are many impressive things about Hausfrau: the quality of the writing; the philosophical thoughts and the musings on language. Anna often poses questions to Doktor Messerli such as ‘“What’s the difference between passivity and neutrality?”’ and ‘”What’s the purpose of pain”’ while the thoughts on language take a variety of forms – the language class itself, the way one of Anna’s lovers speaks English, and comments that form part of the narrative which may be the narrator’s comments or might be free indirect speech. This one early in the novel pretty much sums up Anna’s character and hints at what’s to come:
Only in the present tense is the subject married to its verb. The action – all action, past and future – comes at the end. At the very end, when there is nothing left to do but act.
Hausfrau is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, it’s an outstanding debut and I can’t wait to see what Jill Alexander Essbaum writes next.
Thanks to Mantle for the review copy.