Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This sequel needs a sequel.

“Was this the decisive moment of my life? It felt as if the gap that had dogged me all my days was knitting together before my eyes—so that, from this point on, my life would be as coherent and meaningful as my favorite books. At the same time, I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

In Either/Or we are reunited with Selin as she continues to navigate the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Now a sophomore student at Harvard, Selin has plenty to keep her occupied: her studies inspire her to question the choices she and others have made, the direction of her life, the meaning of love, sex, and connection, the limitations of language, and, of course, her relationship with Ivan, the Hungarian student whose mind remains to Selin, and by extension us, as unreadable as ever. Did she care for her at all?

There was something abstract and gentle about the experience of being ignored—a feeling of being spared, a known impossibility of anything happening—that was consonant with my understanding of love.

Selin’s propensity for long asides is as present as ever and I loved losing myself in her inner monologue. Her long acts of introspections do often come across as navel-gazing (curiously enough the narrative itself mentions navel-gazing), but I never felt bored or annoyed by it. If anything, Selin’s solipsistic inclination for self-interrogation made her all the more realistic. That she refers to books, music, films, and authors to make sense of herself and others results in a deeply intratextual narrative that will definitely appeal to literary students. While Selin isn’t wholly enamoured by academia, we can see how her studies and the books she reads inform the way she understands her world and those who populate it. She often draws parallels between her own life and those of historical and fictional figures. Some of the authors/artists/etc. she mentions include: Kazuo Ishiguro, Fiona Apple, Charles Baudelaire, Pushkin, Shakespeare, André Breton, and of course, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

“There was something about crying so much, the way it made my body so limp and hot and shuddering, that made me feel closer to sex. Maybe there was a line where sex and total sadness touched—one of those surprising borders that turned out to exist, like the one between Italy and Slovenia. Music, too, was adjacent. It was like Trieste, which was Italian and Slovenian and also somehow Austrian.”

Of course, at times these books and figures only add further confusion, so Selin is unsure whether she’s idealizing herself and others so that her life can resemble those she encounters in fiction. More often than not knowledge fails her, so she’s unable to decipher not only the motivations of others but her own true feelings.
Her writerly aspirations too preoccupy her and so do the changes that come about in her life. Selin’s intense friendship and rivalry with ​​Svetlana is threatened when the latter finds a boyfriend. Her roommates too have plenty of things that keep them occupied so Selin finds herself going to parties where she meets less than ideal men. Yet even as Selin forms sexual relationships with them, she longs for Ivan and obsesses over what his infrequent emails leave unsaid.

“It seemed to me that the elements whirling around me in my own life were also somehow held in place by Ivan’s absence, or were there because of him—to counterbalance a void.”

Either/Or shares the same structure with The Idiot so we follow Selin month by month during her academic year before tagging alongside her as she once again goes abroad for the summer. In Turkey she finds herself forming unexpected connections but remains somewhat remote to them.

Sardonic and adroit Either/Or makes for a fantastic read. While Selin does change over the course of her sophomore year, she also remains very much herself. She can be reserved and slightly baffling at times, and yet she’s also capable of making some very insightful or relatable comments. She’s intelligent, somewhat naive, and has a penchant for overthinking and obsessing over minor things. Her deadpan sense of humor and little idiosyncrasies make her character really pop out of the page. I could definitely relate to her many many uncertainties, as well as her fixation with understanding the person who never seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The one that started “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself” made me feel certain that I had spent my whole life not knowing what to do with myself—all day, and all night. “I wander the halls . . .” That was exactly it: not the streets, like a flâneur, but the halls. Oh, I knew just which halls.

As I mentioned already over the course of her second year at Harvard Selin grows into a more self-assured person while also remaining strangely static. Her mental meanderings often included reflections on things such as desirability, belonging, love, heartbreak, self-fulfilment, choice & chance, and I found her perspective on these things deeply compelling. At times her mind is preoccupied with mundane thoughts, at times she loses herself in philosophical and existentialist questions about human nature.
Batuman’s inclusion of the minutiae of her protagonist’s life (such as inserting a tampon: “I tried again to put in a tampon. ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING WAY.”) made Selin’s reality at Harvard all the more vivid. I could easily envision the different environments she occupies, as well as the people who inhabit those places. This combined with the mumblecore dialogues and Selin’s recursive inner monologue, which borders on being a stream of consciousness, give Either/Or quality of hyperrealism. That is, even when confronted with moments of surreality or scenes of a comedic nature, I believed completely in what I was reading. A sense of 90s nostalgia permeates her story which adds to the narrative’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic.

“It was the golden time of year. Every day the leaves grew brighter, the air sharper, the grass more brilliant. The sunsets seemed to expand and melt and stretch for hours, and the brick façades glowed pink, and everything blue got bluer. How many perfect autumns did a person get? Why did I seem always to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”

I loved this novel so thoroughly that I was sad to reach its inevitable conclusion. I hope with all my heart that Batuman will write a third instalment where we will follow Selin during her third year at Harvard.
If you enjoyed The Idiot chances us you will, like me, love this even more (perhaps because batuman is expanding on the ‘universe’ she already established). If you are a fan of the young-alienated-women subgenre you should definitely consider picking these series up.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher for providing me with an arc.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

“THE FOUR HUMORS THAT PUMP THROUGH MY BODY DETERMINE my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”

The Four Humors is a rather milquetoast addition to the young-alienated-women subgenre that has become all the vogue in the last few years. Like most books that belong to this category, The Four Humors is centred around a 20-something woman leading a rather directionless existence. Sibel is a 26-year-old Turkish American woman who is a bit morbid, somewhat disaffected, and prone to self-sabotage. Similarly to other protagonists of this subgenre such as My Year Of Rest and Relaxation (here we the mc’s believes that a prolonged ‘sleep’ will ‘cure’ her of her ‘malaise’), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (here the mc is obsessed with death), and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey (here the mc is in reverence of florence nightingale and prescribes herself an outlandish cure in order to pass her exams), the narrator and protagonist of The Four Humors has a quirky obsession: she looks to the four humors theory of ancient medicine to make sense of her recurring and persistent headaches as well as the ‘malaises’ affecting those around her. Like the other disconnected women populating these disaster-women books, Sibel is grieving the death of one of her parents and uses her new obsession as a coping mechanism. Her remoteness, inwardness, and navel-gazing are yet other traits exhibited by these self-destructive women.
The majority of the narrative takes place in Istanbul during the summer. Sibel, alongside her inoffensive ‘all-American’ boyfriend, has gone to Istanbul to, allegedly, visit her father’s grave. Here she stays with her doting grandmother whose declining health is a source of further apprehension for Sibel who finds herself seeking comfort in the idea of blood, bile, choler, and phlegm as being the cause for human beings’ physical and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, she’s unable and or unwilling to visit her father’s grave, but repeatedly claims that she has to her loved ones.
Time and again she will go on about the theory of four humors but rather than making her into an interesting character, her obsession with this ancient physiology resulted in a lot of repetition. Sibel’s narration was boring, and her constant asides on bile, phlegm etc., further bogged down her story. Her narration lacked the wry social commentary and dark sense of humor that make reads such as Luster, You Exist Too Much, and Pizza Girl into such engaging reads.

Nothing much happens. Sibel avoids going to her father’s grave, she lies about it, her boyfriend seems to grow weary of how closed-off she’s become, and we are later introduced to her cousin and sister, both of which are beautiful or possess something Sibel feels she lacks. Her sister is anorexic and this whole subplot irritated me profoundly as I disliked the way her ED is depicted and treated by other characters. The latter half of the novel then is more about old family ‘secrets’. A portion of the book is dedicated to Sibel’s grandmother’s story, but this is related by Sibel whose voice failed to catch my attention.

This novel brought to mind The Idiot, but if I were to compare the two The Four Humors would not come out on top. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Mina Seckin has, in fact, read The Idiot, and both the tone of her story and her mumblecore dialogues seemed a bit too reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s novel.
The Four Humors is not a memorable addition to the alienated young women literary trend. If you’ve read any of the books from this list, well, you won’t be particularly blown away from The Four Humors. While I could have probably forgiven this book for its lack of originality, the narrative had a humorless quality to it that was harder to look past.
Ultimately, the novel’s only strength, or most appealing aspect, lies in the grandmother/granddaughter relationship. There were the occasional passages that stood out to me but for the most part I found the author’s prose, and the content of her story, to be rather forgettable. The novel does have a strong sense of place and I liked the lazy dreamlike summer atmosphere permeating much of Sibel’s story. So, if you are looking for a read set in Turkey or one that tries to articulate complex things such as grief, numbness, and heartbreak, well, The Four Humors might be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity. Every time I heard it, I felt caught out.

Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential.
In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship.
The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations.
Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny.
While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books.
Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi’s My Education you might want to give this a shot.


my rating: ★★★¾

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Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

She and Mona and I. The three of us: the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.”

Since I fell in love with Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love back in 2016, I have made my way through her oeuvre, even her more ‘obscure’ titles such as the overlooked gem that is The Saint of Incipient Insanities. Three Daughters of Eve marks the sixth novel that I’ve read of hers and while it certainly showcases many of her wonderful trademarks—there is a touch of magical realism, a non-linear narrative, tension between past and present, East and West, Turkish politics, a nuanced exploration of faith and modern Muslim identity—it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that made her other books such compelling reads.

The novel opens in Istanbul where Peri, a married and wealthy woman in her late thirties, is mugged while on the way to a fancy dinner party. Following an altercation with the robber, Peri finds herself thinking back to her time at Oxford University and the part that she played in a ‘scandal’ there.
Chapters detailing Peri’s time at this party are interested with ones delving into her childhood and teenage years in the 1980s and 1990s to her time at Oxford. Once at Oxford Peri meets and becomes close to two other girls: Shirin, a free-spirited British-Iranian girl who is bisexual and kind of counterculture, and Mona, who is a Muslim Egyptian American feminist. Peri grows increasingly intrigued by Professor Azur, who teaches divinity and is idolised by many students because and in spite of his ‘allegedly’ unconventional teaching methods.
One of the novel’s main preoccupation is that of reconciliation: Peri grew up in a divided household. While her mother was a staunch believer, her father was more of a sceptic. Peri felt torn between their different temperaments and beliefs. At Oxford Peri is still uncertain about her own relationship to her faith, so her fascination with Professor Azur is somewhat understandable. While I liked those early sections focusing on Peri’s childhood I do wish that the narrative could have reached her time at Oxford more quickly. By the time we get to her first interaction with Professor Azur we are about 60% into the novel. And this drawn-out build-up to his character does him no favours. When ‘we’ meet him I was underwhelmed. He was not particularly charming or controversial, and the few scenes he was in gave me a rather limited glimpse of his character. To be honest, I found most of the novel’s central characters to be somewhat clichéd. Peri was not particularly sympathetic, her main characteristic is that of being in a perpetual state of confusion, Shirin was the classical rebel, her bisexuality another sign of her subversive nature, while Mona is the classic studious and kind girl. In the scenes set in the present, during the dinner party, Shafak lampoons the Turkish upper-class, emphasizing their shallowness and pettiness. We don’t learn much about Peri’s husband nor of Peri’s life. Her daughter is the typical annoying angsty teenager who is all the rage in ‘adult’ novels.

Still, while I never warmed to Peri or her story, I still found Shafak’s prose to be lovely and I always appreciate her dynamic portrayal of Istanbul. While I did find the novel’s forays into theological debates relatively interesting these did not quite make up for the two-dimensional characters. I think sticking to the one perspective limited the story and I for one would have much preferred it if the story could have also followed Shirin and Mona, rather than solely focusing on Peri. I also felt somewhat cheated by the supposed friendship between Shirin, Mona, and Peri…as Shafak barely scratches the surface of their relationship. Lastly, the whole ‘scandal’ was painfully obvious (I mean, I had an idea of what it would be from reading the summary but I hoped Shafak would not be so predictable).
To be honest, I think that The Saint of Incipient Insanities was a lot more successful in its portrayal of the highs and lows of a disparate group of multicultural university students.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

What could have been the perfect historical mystery for bibliophiles ended up being an unnecessarily long-winded and frequently dull novel.

“Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.”

The Historian alludes to a variety of works, sometimes by means of subtle allusions, while in other cases Elizabeth Kostova seems to be emphasising her own novel’s intertextuality, such as its ostensible intertextual relationship to Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula has come to represent a turning point in vampire literature, hailing it as the ‘original vampire novel’ means disregarding the earlier encounters with vampires of other writers such as Goethe, Byron, Le Fanu, and Polidori. Although the ‘romantic’ and ‘seductive’ vampires populating today’s media don’t seem to owe much to Bram Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, he has become an intrinsic part of vampire culture (if not a synonym of vampirism itself). While vampires are inherently intertextual beings (readers know more or less what to expect when reading a vampire novel) I was hoping that Elizabeth Kostova would not relegate her version of Dracula to the sidelines of her story…which sadly seems to be the case. Kostova, even more than Stoker, pushes Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad Țepeș, to the margins of her narrative.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Historian is its supernatural ambience and the stylistic strength of Kostova’s writing as she deftly weaves together folklore and history in what is neither a carbon-copy of nor a sequel to Dracula. Kostova’s story is an amalgamation of genres: a work of Gothic that largely relies on the epistolary form, a detective novel that is equal parts adventure, travelogue, and history lesson. Through these various styles Kostova examines the often conflictual relationship between Christian West and the Islamic East.
Kostova’s re-elaboration of the myths and stories established by works such as Dracula reflects a divided Europe. She examines themes of immortality, monstrosity, and otherness, against a backdrop of quiet social upheaval. Paul and Helen’s quest to find Dracula/Vlad’s tomb is often impeded by the political atmosphere of the countries they visit. Paul in particular, being American, is regarded with suspicion by these countries’ socialist regimes. This added another layer of secretiveness to their ‘adventures’, one that forces them to carry out their true research under a guise.

While we do get an overall biography of Vlad Țepeș, the ‘man’ himself does not recount his own experiences, we don’t see from his own point of view. His potential victims inform us of his misdeeds and history…which serve to make Vlad into a rather one-sided character. He is ‘evil’, and that seems to be that. I was expecting a far more nuanced portrayal of vampires and of this infamous historical figure. Terrible people/creatures can still be compelling subjects. Kostova’s novel however does not really allow this vilified figure the chance to speak his truth. I could have understood his motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. Sadly, Vlad seems evil for the sake of being evil. We learn of his monstrous actions but we never truly glimpse the mind behind those brutal deeds. Vlad is evil because of his transgression of the natural order…and that’s it. Vampirism aside Kostova’s depiction of Vlad does not really propose any new ‘reading’ of his rule.

While I really appreciated the use of different timelines in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land, here the various storylines were rather uneven: in the 1970s our narrator is a sixteen-year old girl who remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel, her father Paul (his story takes place in the 1950s), and Paul’s former mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi (most of his letters are dated from the 1930s). Initially I thought that the narrative would mainly switch between Paul and his daughter…so I was rather disappointed to discover that the daughter’s story is non-existent. She appears at the beginning of this bulky book and has a few chapters here and there…and that’s it. Paul’s story is the main focus of the narrative, and sadly I just wasn’t all that taken by him or his adventures. Him and Helen definitely travel through interesting cities and places (Turkey, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, France) and I did appreciate Kostova’s use of the sublime in these ‘travelogue’ sections: the way in which the landscapes inspires fear and awe in Paul (these sections reminded me of Ann Radcliffe).
Sadly Paul and Helen’s journey soon grew rather repetitive and predictable. They always seemed to encounter the right people and the right time which definitely struck me as a too coincidental. While I certainly enjoyed reading of the history of the cities they travel through, I wasn’t all that invested in them or their ‘quest’.
Perhaps I was hoping for a more emotionally involving story (such as the one in The Shadow Land) but here the characters were largely secondary, if not downright passive, and while there were plenty of opportunities to flesh them out, to give us an impression of their personalities, their ‘quest’ has far more importance.
The ‘quest’ largely relies on their finding documents or people who know something about Dracula’s existence. They gather information slowly, over the course of hundred and hundred of pages. A lot of what they ‘discover’ wasn’t all that surprising…the ending felt anti-climatic to the extreme.
Nevertheless, in spite of my not so great opinion of this novel, I did appreciate Kostova’s subject matter and her confluence of classicism and romanticism, of logic and emotion, of mysticism and faith. Last but not least, I have always loved descriptions of books and libraries…

“Besides, you can tell a great deal from a historian’s books.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak — book review

Shafak never disappoints!
In her newest novel Shafak explores many of the themes she has already touched upon in previous novels in an innovative manner as the narrative bridges the gap between the life and death of its protagonist.
There is something about Shafak’s prose that really resonates with me. She can address serious and complex issues without jeopardising the creativity of her story or the nuances of her characters.

After she is killed Tequila Leila is not quite dead-dead. Her consciousness seems to ‘survive’ long enough for her to revisit some of her memories. In each chapter Leila remembers a certain event in her life, however mundane it might be, and the narrative beautifully conveys the feelings, smells, and landscapes that make up these memories.
On the one hand, through these memories, we get to know Leila and watch as she forms relationships outside of her familial ones, on the other, we glimpse the city of Istanbul, some of its history and its many different faces.
Ultimately, in spite of the tragedies and traumas that Leila or her friends experience, there is love and hope to be found in this beautiful book. The story brims with empathy and humanity, depicting the distressing yet beautiful life of Leila.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Walking on the Ceiling : Book Review

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Walking on the Ceiling
by Aysegül Savas
★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

I don’t mind plotless novels or meandering stories but there has to be something that holds my attention. Some of my favourite books feature characters with little to no backstory, and simply focus on a time of their life or certain feelings that they experience throughout the course of their life. What I am ‘getting at’ is that I started Walking on the Ceiling knowing that I wasn’t going to get a straightforward story. However, even if I was prepared for a more ‘metaphysical’ type of novel, I wasn’t expecting such a pointlessly self-indulgent narrative.
The nonlinear timeline makes the story all the more irritating. There is this narrator who could as well be nameless given how boring she is. Her only characteristic is that she lies or acts in obscure ways for no reason whats-over. Although she is presented as this deep and complex character who is grappling with her past, she is a self-pitying and a singularly uninteresting individual. A few months ago I read The Far Field which featured a very ‘remote’ main character, but there her self-restraint worked well. I believed her and why she was unable to express herself to others characters and the readers. But here….the protagonist comes across as detestably obnoxious whilst claiming that she is a selfless and ‘lost’ person. To top it all off she is extremely judgemental towards others and provides no explanation for her ‘remoteness’. The advantages she had in life are swept aside to focus on her ‘sad’ parents. Boo-hoo.
The different timelines are confounding and all this background adds little emotion to the narrative.
The chapters tended to end rather abruptly, often cutting through the flow of the story or interrupting the narrator’s contemplation or thoughts.
The thing I did enjoy was the way Istanbul was portrayed. The city seemed far more nuanced than anything else in this novel.
Overall, this was trying too hard to be something abstract and introspective. It would have worked with a compelling narrator; regardless if this character had likeable or dislikable attributes…as long as they were believable and fleshed out their story would have been a cohesive and thoughtful cogitation, rather than this patently elusive mess.

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The Saint of Incipient Insanities: Book Review

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The Saint of Incipient Insanities
by Elif Shafak

★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 just for kicks)

“Lovers are pathetically charming, and exceedingly full of themselves, itself more precisely, for one of the plentiful troubles with loving couples is that the minute two autonomous selves develop themselves into a duo, instead of “two” (as in one plus one), they somehow become “zero” (as in one minus one). Likewise, before anyone could follow up, Ömar and Gail had germinated into a totality.”

Established fans of Elif Shafak should be wary of The Saint of Incipient Insanities. This novel is quite un-Shafak-like. Maybe because this one is one of earlier works (possibly her english debut?), but the tone and structure of this novel are very ‘unique’ and differ from other works by Shafak.
I think Shafak must have had a lot of fun writing this book. She experiments with her style, the way language itself sounds and works, testing the limits of what a ‘novel’ should be like. Her wide ranging vocabulary makes each page rather a lot to take in. At times she could be beautifully articulate and in others she could digress in wordy tangents. Most of the time however I was entertained by her playful and discursive prose, amused by the long-winded passages on the importance of a character’s surname and or the name of an english textbook.
The novel doesn’t present us with a ‘cohesive’ storyline, each chapter has a quirky name and what follows is usually connected to it. For example, in the first chapter ‘Started Drinking Again’, ex-housemates Ömar and Abed are hanging out in a bar called The Laughing Magpie and talk about the way in which their names and surnames have been mispronounced and changed by Americans; their different relationship towards their shared faith (Abed does not drink, Ömar has just started again); and about Gail, Ömar’s wife.
The rest of the novel focuses on the time when Ömar, who travelled from Turkey to complete his PhD in Boston, was living with Abed—from Morocco—and Piyu—from Spain—two other students. Living under the same roof they might share a sense of ‘foreignness’ but they have rather clashing personalities. Shafak focuses particular on the struggles of Ömar, Abed, Piyu’s girlfriend Alegre, and Gail, Ömar’s future wife. There are plenty of weird conversations, bizarre behaviours, and outlandish monologues. Each character seems to be experiencing some sort of personal crisis, each of them is too wrapped up by their own individual situation to notice that their friends are undergoing similar situations. In spite of the seriousness of some of their difficulties, such as Alegre’s eating disorder, Shafak portrays their plights in a rather humorous manner.
Which brings me to the tone of this novel. As mentioned previously, the narrative is playful. Shafak easily moves from city to city, interweaving different conversations and places in the same sentence, and cities and objects have personalities and a point of view of their own.

“At the same instant as that clack! in Istanbul, a sigh was heaved in Boston as Alegre pushed the door of the first place she found open at this hour.”

While the narrative does tell us the characters’ innermost thoughts and fears it also makes ‘fun’ of them. A lot of the time their actions and or their discussions seem ridiculous. They have these quirky habits, or behave in a peculiar way (Gail initially only eats chocolate and bananas…I swear she rivals Samuel Beckett‘s Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape & Embers and Debra Ellen Thompson insists on being called Debra Ellen Thompson), they might take themselves seriously but the narrative makes light of their troubles and or obsessions. The ironic content also reinforces the humorous tone of the novel. At times, especially when the narrative focused on Alegre and Gail, there is only dark humour. In fact, I would almost call this novel a black comedy.

“It wasn’t the cold that made them frown like that. It was something else. Something less blustery and rheumy, more difficult and hideous…something that, if asked, they might have defined as a sudden sense of sulky solitude, thought probably not in these words, and surely not in this specific order.”

I don’t think this book will appeal to a lot of readers…it’s just so bizarrely unique. I loved the characters’ garrulous discussions, the songs (from the Stooges to Nick Cave) and cultural references (this novel is set in the early 2000s), plus they mention Slavoj Žižek whom I adore so…the characters might seem like satires of certain types of people but Shafak manages to make me believe in them and care for them.
I am far from squirmy but I did find the graphic depiction of Alegre’s eating disorder almost… overwhelming…so approach with caution.
Lastly, that ending was underwhelming. I was fully excepting another chapter and then…nothing!
Still, I might one day re-read this just so I can appreciate once more Shafak’s compendium of words.

“Urban legends are the free citizens of the world. They need no passport to travel, no visas to stay. They are verbal chameleons, absorbing the color of the culture they come into contact with. Whichever shore they reach, they can instantly become a native of it. Urban legends are free souls that belong to no one, and yet are the property of all. ”

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The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

A whimsical and moving tale that spans through the most difficult times. To say that the focus of this novel is of the contemporary troubled relationship between Armenians and Turks is reductive. Shafak’s writing is incredibly evocative: she brings to life smells, sounds, cultures and cities. Her descriptions envelope you transporting you straight into her story.
Her characters are as colorful and vivid as their scenery: they all have many quirks and mannerism that make them somewhat unique. There are a few passages dedicated to simply exploring what Asya’s aunties – aka the Kazanci women – dream of at night. This – to me – made them all the more alive. The story itself is about identity and the part that our own past can play on it. It is a novel that challenges you: it asks questions you wish you could avoid or you simply know that you could never truly know the answer to. There is no right or wrong, no easy resolutions.
I wish that Zeliha’s relationship with her partner could have been explored more: Shafak could have spared a chapter to them. Also Shafak tends to lose herself in certain anecdotes. There are a few insertions of certain events that I did not feel added anything to the actual storyline.
Nevertheless Shafak’s writing story is both alluring and inspirational.

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

‘All I could feel was a terrible hollowness in my heart. A door had opened, promising the sublime, but then it had slammed shut, robbing my life of all hope and meaning. I felt as bereft as if I’d woken from the sweetest of dreams to face the pain of truth.’

Madonna in a Fur Coat surprised me in many ways.
I thought that it had been written in contemporary times, and was simply set in the early-ish 20th century rather and it was only after reading a good part of it that I discovered that Sabahattin Ali had died in 1947 and that this particular novel has just now been published in English.
The translators have done a marvellous job: I never did feel as if I was missing out on anything.
The style and themes tackled within this novel are very reminiscent of the ones James Baldwin addresses in Giovanni’s Room: the narrator is remembering a past relationship while incorporating an introspective evaluation of themselves.

‘Having never known such intimacy before, I was desperate to protect it. […] I was, in effect watching the most beautiful bird in all creation and keeping perfectly still for fear of frightening it away with a sudden movement.’

It is a rather short novel, yet it is in some ways it didn’t feel like it given that it was very dense: it has no chapters whatsoever. Most of which has Raif, our narrator, giving the reader a continuous inner monologue.

‘I was only too aware that I still knew next to nothing about her. My judgements were formed of my own dreams and illusions. At the same time, I was absolutely sure that they would not deceive me.’

The reader can already predict the outcome of Raif’s days in Berlin: we are first introduced to a version of him that has obviously suffered some form of loss.

‘My distrust of others was so great, and so bitter, that I sometimes scared even myself. Everyone I met, i met with hostility. Everyone I encountered, I assumed to be full of malice.’

Raif’s loneliness is a constant throughout this novel; he is rather remote in some ways. His character seemed to feel really something only when with ‘his’ Madonna. I believe the author has done this intentionally. Raif is meant to be a ‘cursory’ character. We are only aware of his differences to others: he is an observer, a bystander. Yet, it is because of his sometimes aloof narration that made him intriguing.

‘Perhaps she’d been all I needed. I suppose that is what any of us need: one single person. But what if that person wasn’t really there? What if it all turned out to be a dream, a chimera, a delusion?’

His relationship with Maria was the heart of Madonna in a Fur Coat. A relationship that cannot be always defined; it is more than a friendship and more than a ‘romance’. Maria herself often struggles with this. Their immediate calamity to one another contributes in making their relationship intense.

“Where’s the tragedy in that? The essence of life is in solitude – wouldn’t you agree? All unions are built on falsehood. People can only get to know each other up to a point and then they make up the rest,”

This novel offers clever observations and piquant monologues. At times, both Raif and Maria, could feel a tad melodramatic. Their poignant reflections and comments were dimmed by their prolonged complaints.

‘The more I dwelt on my absurd anxieties and needless, groundless apprehensions, the more I castigated myself for letting my paranoia and wretched intuition darken what should have been the brightest days of my life, and the more I despaired.’

Nevertheless, it was a very well written and enjoyable read that attempted to analyse a relationship between two very bereft individuals; I especially appreciated their not wanting to condemn their relationship by defining it , a quite modern idea.

“Whereas friendship is constant and built on understanding. We can see where it started and know why it falls apart. But love gives no reasons. “

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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