Book Review: Hausfrau


Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum, tells the story of three months in the life of American expatriate Anna who is now living in the suburbs of Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, and their three children. Despite having no close family left alive, and having lived in Switzerland for the past nine years, Anna feels no connection with her adopted homeland. She is in a spiral of self destruction, accelerating towards crisis with an inevitability which is disturbing to read.

On the face of it Anna has it all: a husband who provides for her; healthy, happy children; a mother-in-law available to help out with childcare giving her time to indulge her interests. However, throughout her life Anna has distanced herself from others and now finds that she has few friends.

“Anna rarely felt at ease inside her skin. I am tight faced and thirty-seven years, Anna thought. I am the sum of all my twitches.”

At her husband’s behest she meets with a therapist but is reluctant to open up to her. She is advised to cultivate interests so joins a language class to improve her German that she may communicate better with those around. Here she meets Archie with whom she immediately starts an affair. She uses sex as an opiate, quashing any feelings of guilt with skewed arguments based on feelings of self-entitlement.

Anna does not conflate lust with love although even those she loves are viewed through a self tainted glass. She recognises that if her affairs are discovered then her comfortable world will fall apart. Many of her actions are more akin to self-harm, a cry for the help that she persistently eschews.

I loved the way this book was written, its use of language. For example, descriptions of place allow the reader to appreciate how Anna found the grandeur and beauty of her surroundings oppressive.

“Alstadt is clotted with historically significant churches”

Absorbed as she is in her malcontents she finds the efforts of Bruno’s family and those who try to reach out to her in friendship to be as repressive as the well ordered canton in which she reluctantly lives.

The tragedy of the story is all the more painful because it could have been avoided. I would have liked to know more about Anna’s background to better understand why she acted as she did but perhaps I am looking for easy answers which do not exist in life. Anna brought about her own downfall, but to blame her entirely would be to misunderstand the human condition. Her story is poignant and well worth a read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mantle.