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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 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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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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