For Books’ Sake talks to: Jill Alexander Essbaum

23rd Apr 2015

For Books’ Sake talks to: Jill Alexander Essbaum
Image: Megan Sembera Peters
Despite being described by The Sun as ‘a Swiss romp that is the new Fifty Shades of Grey’, 'Hausfrau' has had an excellent critical reception from the rest of the press. Ellie Broughton talks to Jill Alexander Essbaum about her acclaimed debut novel.

Essbaum drew on her own experience of living in Switzerland to tell the story of Anna, a depressed housewife whose adulterous trysts ultimately fail to protect her from depression, boredom and loneliness. The protagonist has been compared to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina – 150-year-old heroines whose stories seem far removed from the experience of 21st-century wives.

However, the author says that her own experience of expatriate life was much like Anna’s: 

‘My own alienation, the sadness and loneliness that I lived through during my time in Switzerland very much informed the shape of the novel,’ Essbaum admits. ‘I really did not have very many friends, nor did I have much to do with my time.  I wandered the grocery store aisles, walked in the woods, rode the trains, just like Anna.’

Her character begins the novel by acknowledging how isolated she is. She joins a German language class, but instead of seeking or even accepting friendship and relief from her loneliness, Anna starts to reject intimacy with everyone around her – with disastrous consequences.

Essbaum explains: ‘She’s grown wise to “help” – by that I mean to say if you let someone help you, you must let them come close to you. She can almost not bear to have another person near her, truly near her, near enough to recognise the true “her”.’

Given its comparisons to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Hausfrau has to be repeatedly defended against the charge of being a morality tale.

Essbaum even jokes: ‘The challenge was to present it that way without making it come off as a morality tale! Kidding – to a degree.’

It’s not Anna’s morality that’s brought up on charges, she explains, but her consciousness: ‘She walks through life with her eyes closed, her ears plugged.

‘Do this and you’ll wander into oncoming traffic or step off ledges or, as in the case of Anna, make poor choice upon poor choice – it’s simple cause and effect. It’s in her hands– as it is in all our hands. It’s her responsibility, her imperative. She knows better but does not do better. 

‘We have, for the most part (noting well there are, of course, exceptions), freedom to choose. To be a feminist means to allow a woman freedom to choose what to make of her life.’ ‘This is not true only for wives and women. Husbands and firemen and bank officers and writers and cats and children– if you sleepwalk through your days, you are far more likely to run into trouble. The Doktor [Anna’s psychiatrist] reminds us and Anna of this constantly.’

I ask Essbaum if she considers herself a feminist writer. She dodges the label, instead couching her politics in her own terms.

‘I believe that all people have unalienable rights,’ she replies.  ‘As a modern woman in the western world I have a responsibility to my sisters who live in places where freedoms come at greater costs to take nothing for granted. As modern, western women we have opportunities our foremothers couldn’t even fathom.  

‘We have, for the most part (noting well there are, of course, exceptions), freedom to choose. To be a feminist means to allow a woman freedom to choose what to make of her life.’

Poetry and literature have an important role to play in that particular political movement, she adds: ‘Literature and art are ways to experience parts of the world we otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience. They teach us empathy. Empathy will save the world. We must learn to feel what other people feel. That sparks change. It is most certainly a political act.’

So what’s happening after Hausfrau?

‘It’s made me want to write more prose! I have been bitten by the beast!’ she replies.

Hausfrau is out now at Foyles, Mantle (Pan Macmillan) or from your local bookshop.

Jill Alexander Essbaum is currently finishing a collection of poems and about to start writing her second novel.

Ellie Broughton is a freelance writer and features editor for Pulse. She tweets at @___ellie.