Anna Benz, an American in her late-thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno – a banker – and their three young children, in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich.
Though she leads a comfortable life, she is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with Bruno, or even her own feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises her.
But she soon finds that she can’t easily extract herself from these relationships. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back . . .
Chekhov said that if you show a gun in the first act of a play, you must fire it in the third. It’s one of those lovely concise rules that if you find it in a piece of work, shows good writing, especially if it’s smooth and effortless.
The cover of Hausfrau is a touch titillating. Beneath the cover lives something raw, tragic and utterly devastating. If Essenbaum only ever writes Hausfrau, she should not consider it a failure. I want you to go and read this, but I am going to warn you about it. It is not comfortable to read, although it is beautiful. I read this in a day, in a state of anguished passion, feeling almost ill with dread. It is arousing and passionate, in it’s juxtaposition between the spare poetry of it’s prose and the seething, corrosive delusions that define and drive Anna.
There’s a clipped precision at points that explodes into scenes of utter delightful writing. Essenbaum manages to move from the furtive flirtation to the explicitly erotic without being obvious or gratuitous. There is a quote from Kafka that I’ve spoken of before, that a book should not always be comfortable, like an axe cracking through the ice. Hausfrau is a brilliant example of that.
I was shaken by the last act, the inexorable logic moves like a freight train and the pace makes you hold your breath. Her experience as a poet is wielded to brutal effect, she knows how a great line can drop you in a single reading. I’m still discomforted by the book but I am incredibly moved and honoured to have read it.
The last line moved me into a place of silence, and in awe that she delivers it with an almost casual ease of craft. I tend to read from either envy or contempt, if I’m reading as a writer, and here I read entirely from envy.