Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly...

Anna Benz lives in comfort and affluence with her husband and three young children in Dietlikion, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich. Anna, an American expat, has chosen this life far from home; but, despite its tranquility and order, inside she is falling apart. 

Feeling adrift and unable to connect with her husband or his family; with the fellow expatriates who try to befriend her; or even, increasingly, her own thoughts and emotions, Anna attempts to assert her agency in the only way that makes sense to her: by engaging in short-lived but intense sexual affairs.

But adultery, too, has its own morality, and when Anna finds herself crossing a line, she will set off a terrible chain of events ending in unspeakable tragedy. As her life crashes down around her, Anna must then discover where one must go when there is no going back...

I have to admit that this is something I would never have picked up had I not been offered a review copy, but it's good to step out of your bookish comfort zone every once in a while, and I'm so glad that I did! For a debut novel this is stunning. Essbaum is primarily a poet and this much is clear in her prose. The language is poetic, translucent, and just flows - perfectly reflecting Anna's dreamlike state as she drifts almost semi-consciously through her life.

Grazia described Hausfrau as 'A racy mix of Gone Girl and Fifty Shades.' I'm in the minority that has yet to read Gone Girl so I can't comment on that, but in my opinion if you're looking for your next Christian and Ana fix this isn't the book for you. The sex scenes are cold and loveless, and this Anna is far from a naive twenty-something. She is a married woman jaded by her life, and looking for something, anything, to fill it.

I didn't like Anna - I don't think the reader is supposed to - she's so emotionally adrift that even I felt cut off from her. She is a severely troubled woman full of self loathing, and her efforts to better herself - taking German classes for example - serve only to make her situation worse. I didn't really feel anything towards any of the other characters either, but I suspect that this is because Anna is disconnected from them to the point where she only sees their worst qualities. Mary is perhaps the only truly likeable character. She is good, kind - almost unbearably so - but she is also everything that Anna isn't, everything she has lost. Recently moved to Switzerland Mary is still full of enthusiasm for the place, but as the story wears on small cracks begin to show and you can't help but wonder whether she too will end up adrift.

Switzerland is almost a character in itself - breathtaking to look at yet simultaneously oppressive and isolating. The clockwork precision and peace for which it is famous contrasts directly with Anna's raging inner turmoil. The street names, the train stops, all are painstakingly described. Anna is governed by them whether she likes it or not.

The narrative constantly flits between Anna's past, her present, and her therapy sessions with Doktor Messerli. Yet it is surprisingly easy to follow as we gradually learn the whole of Anna's story, building towards what we know can only be a tragic ending. I guessed what was going to happen at the end but it was very subtly done, and very apt.

4/5 stars: Although not to my usual taste, Hausfrau is compelling, disturbing, and beautifully written. I can't wait to read more from this author!

*Thanks to Sam Eades at Pan Macmillan for sending me a review copy of this book!*


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