Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s“unnecessary appendage.” Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated over her lifetime have never been read by anyone. After overhearing her neighbors, “the three witches,” discussing her too-white hair, Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair too blue.
In this portrait of a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Colorful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s own volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.
Rabih Alameddine’s novel is a beautifully written meditation on an unconventional life, yet a life lived with humor, courage, resilience, and grief. Aaliya, a seventy-two-year-old woman in Beirut, spends her days translating famous works of fiction into Arabic that will never be published and yet somehow she is sustained by this seemingly pointless activity. Why?—the reader may well ask. The answer is clear—for the defining and consoling power of Art.