Anna Benz, an American ex-patriate, lives a life of affluence and order in a beautiful suburb of Zurich. She busies herself caring for her three children and her successful husband, Bruno, a Swiss banker. But scratch beneath the surface and all is not well in Anna’s life; she is becoming increasingly disconnected from her family, her friends, and even from her own thoughts and feelings. Deeply unhappy, Anna indulges in brief, lustful affairs, but soon Anna’s actions spark a series of events that end in tragedy and change the course of her life forever.
Anna is a despicable character who struggles with her own actions and yet seems incapable of halting the downward spiral of her life. She makes a lot of bad choices, and I found it extremely difficult to have any sympathy for her or her situation. I was not enthralled by the story; I just didn’t care what happened to her! In fact, I found it very hard to relate to any of the characters in this book: Anna’s imposing husband, Bruno; her snide mother-in-law; even her two friends: the self-obsessed Edith, and the utterly limp Mary. None of them drew me back to the story once I had put the book down.
Hausfrau is not a happy story, nor is it an easy read. The main narrative is punctuated with scenes from Anna’s Jungian therapy sessions, which gave the first half of the novel a very disjointed feel. The problem was exacerbated by the awkward insertion of German words, followed by their English translation; it made for a challenging and sometimes clunky read.
However, two-thirds of the way through the novel, tragedy strikes, and to me, this felt like a real turning point, an awakening for both Anna and the reader. The novel began to flow, with longer passages both in the present and revisiting Anna’s Jungian therapy with Doktor Messerli. It felt like an emergence, a return to consciousness that mirrors Jung’s theory of psychoanalysis.
An award-winning poet, Essbaum redeems herself in the wordplay and rhythm that runs subtly through Hausfrau (her debut novel). The puns are magnificent and the interplay between English and German vocabularies is glorious at times. She captures the Swiss culture of order and efficiency beautifully, not simply in two-dimensional descriptions but through the balance and cadence of her words.
So, if you can make it through the first half of the novel, you will be rewarded, but perseverance is key to this story’s success.