The Unmoored: Two haunting books about strangers living in strange lands.

by amy

In Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, readers meet Anna Benz, an American expat living in Switzerland with her husband and three young children. Despite having spent nearly a decade in the country, her grasp of the German language has yet to advance past a rudimentary level. With her husband Bruno and mother-in-law taking care of many of life’s quotidian tasks, however, she is able to exist in an insulated bubble—speaking only when needed to those outside of the home. And her lack of a driver’s license leaves her entirely reliant on the local train that allows her to find a life outside of her small Zurich suburb. While her language fluency may be limited, there are, of course, other more primitive forms of communication to which Anna does have access—and her nameless malaise impels her to search for connection through a series of ill-considered affairs (even as she goes through the motions of learning in a daily language intensive course designed for foreigners).

And in Family Life, Akhil Sharma presents narrator Ajay Mishra, who suffers from a similar cultural and personal disorientation when his family moves from Delhi to New York City in the late 1970s. America holds the promise of success and upward mobility for the Mishra family—but after a tragic accident renders Ajay’s older brother Birju incapable of realizing the dreams his parents have for him, the family’s screeches to a halt, leaving Ajay to exist as a virtual orphan.

Though both Anna and Ajay are surrounded by family and would-be friends, each is alone, bearing the burden of decisions and happenstance that would seek to define them. We see each event play out in (dreadful) slow motion, as if watching a Greek tragedy with the knowledge of what lies ahead. By societal standards, Anna is a “good wife, mostly” and Ajay is a good brother and a good son–on the outside. But what others don’t see is the internal struggle that each character experiences. They only see the missteps and mistakes that play out in public.

As Tolstoy famously observes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and in Hausfrau and Family Life readers see the veracity of this statement. The precise prose of Essbaum and Sharma impresses us with the ability to delicately create worlds that we may inhabit temporarily—if only to convince us that we are happy that we do not reside there permanently.
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