A truly wonderful novel that rewards a patient reader. This novel begins us with Alia accidentally dying her hair with coloring shampoo because she “likes a good lather” and uses way more than recommended. She tells us that she is 72, living in Beirut, and that because her hair is yellowish/white, she wanted a little more white, which gave over to blue by accident. She decides that older women like her like bluish hair tints because with her diminished eyesight, it appears not blue at all, but a distinct, bright white, and that her own perception of her hair is more important than anything else. This little decision sets the tone for the novel. While at times going through long sections of her history as a young bride, as a friend, as a witness to revolution and warfare, and the rest of the 20th century, the novel clearly places us in the present with Alia. Alia spends each year (on January 1st, which is coming up) translating novels into Arabic. She’s on her 37th novel, once she decides what to do, in 40 years. Last year, she translated WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and she’s not sure yet about this year. She translates by combining the both English and French translations of novels not written in either English or French for Arabic versions. She knows that this further alienates the text from the original, but since she does not publish these, but instead sees it as a whimsical hobby, she doesn’t care. And besides, Benjamin and Nabokov both support her in ways.
So the novel covers a lot of history, a lot of fiction, and a lot of one life. Alia has wonderfully acerbic and confident opinions about everything. Most alluring, she hates formulaic contemporary writing and doesn’t trust Americans.