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Jill Alexander Essbaum: A poet whose language echoes Maupassant

Anna Benz, the heroine of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s compelling novel, has little in common with today’s modern woman. She is not an equal partner in her marriage to her Swiss husband Bruno, a high-earning banker. She lacks women friends.  She shows little maternal interest in her three children. She does not drive or even have her own bank account. In fact, she is so disengaged from her environment, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich, that it is nine years before she bothers to try to learn German. 

We meet American-born Anna, who is pretty and in her late thirties, as she starts her language course. She is also having therapy with a Jungian-trained female psychiatrist, Dr Messerli. Although Anna is chronically crippled by social inhibitions, she is uninhibited sexually. She escapes from life through erotic no-strings-attached sexual encounters with near-strangers, and even goes straight to a therapy session on her way home from one such emotionally empty liaison. “Some women collected spoons. Anna collected lovers,” observes Essbaum.

The psychiatrist — and the reader — struggle to deal with Anna’s lack of drive and total passivity. Doesn’t she think she has a responsibility to be something, Dr Messerli asks. “I can see your point. You may be right,” Anna replies, but is not nudged into action.

Little might be happening in Anna’s life but her personality is still a fascinating study. Essbaum, an award-winning poet, keeps the reader gripped with her skilful use of language; her precise, clear style gives the impression that she has thought carefully about every single word. Her descriptions often echo Maupassant; the first line of the book is: “Anna was a good wife. Mostly.”

There are no clues about events in Anna’s early life that might make her behave as she does. “The face one wears as an adult is a mask that is cut to fit in her youth,” is about as far as it goes. All we learn is that Anna’s parents died in a car crash when she was in her early twenties and she has no one she would consider close to her back in the States.   

Her sexual encounters do little to fill her bottomless pit of loneliness and lack of fulfilment, but provided the publishers with the chance to promote the book as a literary Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a bit like claiming that all meals taste the same. Anna’s liaisons may well be erotic but her emotional disengagement cloaks them with sadness.  

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