I may be one of the few people around today, who has not read Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, and have no intention of doing so in the future. So when the book Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum was described to me as ‘a sort of Swiss Fifty Shades of Grey’ I was not inclined to pay much attention. Nevertheless, as an expat housewife, living in Zurich, a book in which the protagonist is also an expat housewife living in Zurich was bound to come to my attention from every direction, and I am ashamed to admit that curiosity got the better of me.
Anna, the hausfrau of the book, is an American, married to a Swiss banker, living in Dietlikon, a suburb of Zurich. She has three small children, lives across the road from her Mother-in-law, and is utterly, utterly bored.
After almost a decade of living in Switzerland, Anna has finally been persuaded to take German lessons in order to understand more of what is going on around her. She is also undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis in an attempt to understand herself better. Meanwhile, she has embarked on a series of meaningless sexual encounters, which fail to fill the void of her vacuous existence. It was only a few pages before parallels with her namesake Anna Karenina sprang to mind.
The character of Anna is so passive, as to be almost unbelievable. She has no job, no hobbies, no bank account in her own name, not even a driving license. She fills her days with German classes, therapy sessions and lovers, and her nights crying on a park bench in the field behind her home. No wonder she is so miserable.
The story is nicely woven around three threads. Firstly her German classes which parallel her life and interactions with others;
“the German language, like a woman, has moods. On occasion, they are conditional, imperative, indicative, subjunctive….”
But how often is the past simple? Is the present ever perfect? Anna stopped listening. These were rules she didn’t trust.
Secondly her analysis sessions which reflect her innermost thoughts and hidden feelings;
“When you were a girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Anna gave a plaintive answer.
“Loved. Protected. Secure.”. She knew that wasn’t what the doctor meant.
The Doktor tried another approach.
“What did you study at university?”
Anna flushed. She didn’t want to say.
“Home economics”, Anna whispered.
And thirdly, her sexual encounters which are both graphic and frequent; with one of her lovers a professor of pyrology, she has literally been playing with fire, yet even these affairs fail to bring Anna either satisfaction or happiness.
When tragedy really does strike the family, Anna’s depression reaches new levels of despair, and she has no one to turn to for help. The parallels with Tolstoy’s Anna, play themselves out to the end.
Writers are often given the advice to write what they know about, and as such there seems to be an expanding genre of expats turning their experiences into fiction. But Hausfrau is not really about the experiences of expatriation, it is about the isolation of this woman. Her inability to communicate to those around her is a reflection on her life in Switzerland; the impenetrability of both the language of Swiss German and the Swiss people themselves, even when they are members of the same family.
Is Anna a believable character? No doubt people like this do exist; letting life wash over them with no attempt to push against the demands of others for the sake of their own sanity.
It is an easy read, but it was only the setting of familiar locations around Zurich that made reading this book worthwhile to me.