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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 she wrote this directly in English, or maybe because she wanted to try something different, 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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