By Jill Alexander Essbaum
Random House (March 17, 2015)
Reviewed by Billie Hinton
“Anna was a good wife, mostly.”
The first line of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s stunning novel Hausfrau could describe any number of wives. None of us are perfect. But Anna Benz, Essbaum’s protagonist, spirals a dark trajectory from the first page.
Anna Benz is a 38-year old American expat hausfrau, married to Swiss banker Bruno Benz, mother of three young children, daughter-in-law to Ursula, Bruno’s mother who lives next door. It is clear from the beginning of the book that something has happened from which Anna has not quite recovered, and it is clear that whatever it was has triggered a sequence of uncontrollable affairs between Anna and several random men who cross her path, including a fellow student in the German language class she takes, a childhood friend of Bruno’s.
Essbaum layers three narratives (Anna’s present, her sessions with her Jungian analyst Doktor Messerli, and the careful unfolding of a past formative event that seems to have initiated the affairs) with clues to Anna’s psychological make-up: the death of Anna’s parents in a car accident when she was 21, Anna’s early and detailed love affairs with imaginary men, and what Anna most wants to be when she grows up—loved, protected, secure.
But when she marries Bruno and moves to Switzerland, a country which in many ways meshes perfectly with Anna’s need for external structure (the order, the trains that run on time, the ringing of church bells without fail), she seems to lose her self in some integral way. Her growing disconnection with her husband and the children she bears is fueled by her fascination with riding the trains, as if she hopes to be carried away on a daily basis to a new and more satisfying life. But the trains carry her to meetings with very real men, a compulsion that brings her physical release but not the satisfying life she seems to want. Essbaum’s graphic descriptions of sex between Anna and these men offer a visceral window to Anna’s attempt to feel something, to be connected in some vital, physical way.
Anna’s analyst, Doktor Messerli, talks of alchemy in several sessions, and it is through this lens that Anna’s arc is seen most clearly. Anna wants her life to be transformed. She wants to take the prima materia, the original matter, the unconscious drive, and turn that to gold through being a good wife and mother. She gets caught up in the urgent burn of desire and need, the calcination phase of the alchemical process. When she faces a supreme loss, what might wash her clean seems to instead simply wash her further away from herself.
Although dark and at times difficult to bear, Hausfrau is revelatory in its portrayal of a woman’s struggle with love, loss, and desire. Anna says later in the novel, “A comet did not veer from its trajectory. A beautiful disaster that was fated to happen did.” In Hausfrau, the voice and sensibility of Anna pulls the reader forward. Essbaum expertly guides us to the novel’s heavily foreshadowed conclusion. And we follow the comet’s trajectory, transfixed.
BILLIE HINTON is a Jungian-inspired psychotherapist and the author of eight books, including the Claire Quartet, hailed as “utterly hypnotic prose.” You may learn more about her work and join her mailing list at billiehinton.com.