Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a popular Turkish author, and a Rumi scholar, raised by her mother and grandmother, experiencing a childhood and influences that fed a fertile imagination. Now based in London, this is her tenth novel. Since reading The Forty Rules of Love, the first of her novels to actively reference her Rumi knowledge and learnings, I’ve read the excellent The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour and her nonfiction essay The Happiness of Blond People. She is an interesting and unique author because of her ability to straddle the thinking of both East and West, captured through engaging characters and storytelling; she demonstrated that for all our supposed differences, we are grappling with similar issues.

Three Daughters of Eve is an interesting, quietly provocative, philosophical novel. Shafak brilliantly sets up a character study of Peri, our Turkish protagonist, who on her way to a dinner party to meet her husband, decides to abandon her car in the middle of a traffic jam, in pursuit of an opportunistic handbag thief.

“Like a magic wand in the wrong hands, the traffic turned minutes into hours, humans into brutes and any trace of sanity into sheer lunacy.”

There is a violent, unsettling altercation after which she will continue on her way, shaken, but in one piece and determined not to change her plans. However this episode and the memories it awakens, will over the course of the evening, reveal her conflicted self and cause her to consider her life and address a significant event of the past, as the present madness moves forward towards astonishing heights.

“Though easy to forget at times, the city was a stormy sea swollen with drifting icebergs of masculinity, and it was better to manoeuvre away from them, gingerly and smartly, for one never knew how much danger lay beneath the surface.”

The three daughters are the three girls who appear in the photo that falls out of her handbag, referred to as the sinner, the believer and the confused. They are three young Muslim students at Oxford university, including Peri (the confused), who will all take the same class with Professor Azur and for a time they will live together. The girls all have different views, as do their fellow classmates, in the class about ‘understanding God’, a guided philosophical think-tank, where the handpicked students are forbidden to discuss religion, and must instead learn to express their opinions without the framework of doctrine.

Thus the novel is narrated across two timelines, the present day Istanbul (2016) en route to and at a bourgeoise dinner party and a period of time at the university in Oxford (2000).

Shirin is the liberal-minded sinner with no excuses or apologies for who she is, she loves to provoke reaction and is a willing accomplice come recruiter to the Professor’s circle, it is she who brings the conservative believer Mona and Peri together.

Shafak’s account of Peri’s parents and family is brilliantly characterised and aptly portrays why she is given the label of ‘confused’, they are complete opposites and over time become even more so, her two brothers are also polar opposite while Peri, loaded with empathy, understands all their positions, but can not stand in either of their shoes. Her plan to study in England, supported by her father and a cause of concern for her mother, was more of an escape for her than the brilliant opportunity her father imagined.

“They were as incompatible as tavern and mosque. The frowns that descended on their brows, the stiffness that infused their voices, identified them not as a couple in love, but as opponents in a game of chess…

Religion had plummeted into their lives as unexpectedly as a meteor, and created a chasm, separating the family into two clashing camps.”

Despite education, philosophical questions and new friends, Peri is a young, Turkish woman coming to live in a foreign country; as I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice the synchronicity between this combination of time, space and circumstance that made Peri vulnerable to manipulative intent and the protagonist of Claire Fuller’s excellent novel Swimming Lessons, a novel that chose not to explore the family background and cultural references of its young, female Norwegian university student, and rather focuses on the life that followed an equally significant turning point.

Here in Elif Shafak’s novel is an attempt to provide an experience with its cultural context. They are both young impressionable women having life-changing experiences in a foreign culture, with little support or guidance, they are lost in an age-appropriate confusion of emotions, one that is not on the same wavelength as the object of their desire.

Elif Shafak speaking in Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of Rayna Tzvetkova

While I enjoyed the novel and love Elif Shafak’s writing and philosophical questioning, there was a point very near the end, where events became too surreal for me to stay captured in the literary bubble of considering that evening dinner party in 2016 legitimate. It may be a satire of the Turkish elite, some of the things that happen and that are said are a mix of humorous and dramatic, however that’s not the tone of the novel as a whole.

I don’t know why the author chose to brings things together in the manner she did, for me personally it distracted from the thought process I’d spent the entire novel developing, and resulted in a suspension of belief, a kind of clocking out. I was waiting for the resolution, that’s where it was heading, and it does attempt to do that, however, as she not so convincingly demonstrates, humans can be unpredictable, and their actions often make no sense at all.

An excellent and thought-provoking novel that I recommend, despite a somewhat less well executed ending.

**********

Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

To purchase a copy via Book Depository, click here

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

swimming-lessonsSwimming Lessons is an evocative, thought-provoking novel that begins with an intriguing mystery, evolving into melancholy as the events before and during Ingrid’s marriage, the wife of Gil and mother of two young girls who disappeared 12 years before, are revealed.

The novel begins with Gil standing inside a second hand bookstore, having found a scrap of paper within a books’ pages, moving closer to the window to try and read it. The letter is dated 2 July 1992;  his attention is diverted when he glances out the window and sees a woman in a coat who he believes is Ingrid, who had been missing, presumed drowned for twelve years now.

When chapter two begins with a letter addressed to Gil from his wife dated one month earlier, on 2nd June 1992, a quick scan ahead reveals the novels pattern, alternate chapters, one set in the present around Gil and his daughters Flora and Nan, the other a chronological revelation of the letters his wife wrote to him over that month before she disappeared, each letter placed inside one of the many books that sat on the shelves of their seaside, island home. Twelve years later, he appears to have just (or finally) discovered one of these letters within the pages of a book in the local second hand bookshop. An extraordinary and brilliant concept, it opens the novel with the maximum intrigue and desire to know what went on between these two.

Dear Gil, Of course I couldn’t write the story of a marriage in one letter. It was always going to to take longer. After I finished my first letter I meant to send it straight away. I found an envelope from an old electricity bill in the kitchen table drawer, and thought I’d walk to the postbox as the sun came up before I could change my mind. But perched on the arm of the sofa in the dark with the pen in my hand there was a noise from the girl’s room (the squeak of bedsprings, the creak of the door), and without thinking I grabbed a book from the nearest shelf, shoved the letter inside and pushed it back into place.

swimmingAfter Gil’s sighting, events bring the family together, highlighting their similarities and differences, exposing various family secrets and lies and all the while, each letter like a dripping tap, one by one revealing more of the relationship between Ingrid, the young Norwegian university student and Gil, her literature professor and the very different path her life would take once their lives intertwined.

The letter’s are her story of a marriage, told to him (and the reader) as if he were an outsider, much of the dialogue she recounts is written in the form of conversations they had as she recalls them. She reminds him how they met, portraying herself throughout as a passive participant, her rare challenges of his behaviour ineffectual. Her rebellion or escape, an activity she indulged often, was to abandon the home, walk to the sea, strip and swim out as far as possible, becoming at one with the sea, giving in to its allure.

Ingrid’s story focuses on the marriage, without straying into her past, her home country, her own ambitions or desires. Those omissions create a presence that is never mentioned, that weigh on the reader, who on reading begins to feel the futility of her existence, she is isolated, without friends or family and struggling as a mother, she has forsaken all on a whim, fulfilling desires of a man whose star is in decline, while hers will be extinguished before it has a chance.

allure-of-the-sea

Image from film The Whale Rider based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera

She survives as long as she does thanks to the pull, the allure of the sea, the pull to the sea is as strong as any bond she with any of the people around her, and just as she is sometimes abandoned by Gil for the city, so she abandons the home for the pull of the sea.

Swimming Lessons is an incredibly accomplished novel with well drawn characters, including that of ‘the marriage,’ perhaps the chief protagonist itself, as the letters reveal more of ‘the marriage’ than of Ingrid herself.

It is something of an homage to books, readers and writing as they are all given important roles in providing clues and holding secrets of this marriage.

It is a book that invites discussion and would be a provocative novel for a bookclub, there is so much that invites discussion and would likely bring out quite different points of view.

Intriguingly, my copy of the book also had something old slipped between the covers, not a letter, but an old black and white photograph of ‘The Lake’, Alexander Park, yet another intrigue within the intrigue, I’m still wondering where that came from and whose handwriting is on the back and what story that photo could talk, if it could give up more than just a still, lifeless image.

Highly Recommended.

Click to Buy a Copy of Swimming Lessons 

Literary Blog Hop Winner!

Thank you everyone who participated in the Literary Bloghop and to all who follow this blog, Word by Word.

I am delighted to announce the winner of the giveaway, who will soon be receiving a copy of Claire Fuller’s excellent novel Our Endless Numbered Days is……

Debbie Rodgers from Exurbanis

DebbieRodgers

Congratulations Debbie, I am sure you’re going to enjoy the book!

Thanks again to Melanie at My Book Self for organising the giveaway.

Literary BlogHop Book #Giveaway

blog-hop

Leave a comment, win a book… Open internationally

The literary bloghop hosted by  Melanie at My Book Self offers the chance to win a book at Word by Word and visit other blogs offering books, vouchers and bookish accessories. Anyone can enter, anywhere in the world, you don’t have to have a blog or follow anything, just leave a comment,

To be in to win a copy of:

Endless

Our Endless Numbered Days

by Claire Fuller

– read my review here

Peggy Hillcoat is 17 years old and has been back in her family for 2 months now, everything is familiar and strange at the same time. Her father is no longer there, but in his place is an 8-year-old brother Oskar, she hadn’t known of until her return. He is the same age now that she was when she and her father disappeared, for nine years, without trace. – extract from Claire’s review

a) Leave a comment below with your email address (1 entry)

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Click Here to visit other participating blogs…

Thank you for stopping by at Word by Word and Happy Blog Hopping!

N.B. The giveaway closes 12 April, 2015. The winner will be notified by email.

This giveaway is now closed.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Highgate London, November 1985

EndlessPeggy Hillcoat is 17 years old and has been back in her family for 2 months now, everything is familiar and strange at the same time. Her father is no longer there, but in his place is an 8-year-old brother Oskar, she hadn’t known of until her return. He is the same age now that she was when she and her father disappeared, for nine years, without trace.

Claire Fuller’s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days is the story of Peggy, narrated looking back from the present, when she has returned, slowly revealing the events that occurred that summer when her mother travelled to her native Germany and her father decided to take her out of school early, so they could camp out in the back yard, applying his obsessively learned survivalist skills, as if in preparation for the great Armageddon.

“When my father invited members of the North London Retreaters to our house for meetings, I was allowed to open the front door and show the half-dozen hairy and earnest men into Ute’s sitting room. I liked it when our house was full of people and conversation, and until I was sent up to bed, I lingered, trying to follow their discussions of the statistical chances, causes and outcomes of a thing they called ‘bloody Armageddon’.”

Peggy’s mother Ute was a young concert pianist and at 25-years-old, while on a tour of England, met her father, a stand-in page-turner eight years her junior.

Throughout the story and as witnessed in the quote above, there is a level of perceived inferiority surrounding the father, he is at pains to fulfil his ambition, even if it is only to complete the fallout shelter in the basement, a job he completes on the same day Peggy returns from school to learn that her mother had gone on a concert tour of Germany without saying goodbye or telling her.

The chapters unfold and we witness Peggy happily camping out in their backyard, which backs onto the leafy Highgate cemetery, with her father, learning survivalist skills and it almost feels like a natural extension of their fun that they will put their learnings into practice by packing items written on the endless lists they’ve been creating to depart on a journey into a larger version of the backyard.  But we embark with hindsight, already knowing this is a forbidden trip, one that required them to take their passports, traverse a river and seek out that cabin in the woods Peggy’s father had been telling her about for a long time ‘die Hütte’.

It is because we are forewarned that nine years have passed, that we read of the camping trip with mild horror, wondering how they are going to survive and what might have occurred during this eternity of days that will follow. Especially when her father tells her that they are the only survivors, that the world really has ended. There is no going back.

“Each morning since we had arrived, my father had cut notches in die Hütte’s door frame, but when he got to sixteen he decided to stop.

‘Dates only make us aware of how numbered out days are, how much closer to death we are each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.’ He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. ‘Our days will be endless.’”

highgate-cemetery-grave

Highgate Cemetery

Ironically, though far from civilised society, Peggy learns the one thing her mother never passed on to her, how to play the piano. One of a number of obsessions that her father embarks upon, he fabricates a piano out of wood after Peggy who he has renamed Punzel expresses disappointment that the cabin doesn’t possess a piano as he had promised. He has brought the sheet music for ‘La Campanella’ with him, which she will learn by heart on an instrument incapable of making a sound.

‘Its going to take a lot of practice, Punzel. Are you sure about this?’

I knew it was a warning he thought he ought to give, rather than a challenge he wanted me to back down from. There was an enthusiasm bubbling inside him, like he hadn’t had since he started work on the fallout shelter. My father always needed  to have a project.

As the days pass, we become aware of the deterioration in stability of the father and the importance of every ritual to ensure their survival. Right from the beginning we read with a base layer of tension, as if waiting for something bad to happen, wondering what is going to tip the balance, who is going to survive and what the repercussions of these endless days will be.

Fuller keeps us on tenterhooks right until the end, even though Peggy has returned home on the very first page, right from that first page, when she cuts a picture of her father’s head out of a photo and hides it in her underclothing, we sense something not quite right. And by the end we too will be going out of our mind needing to know why.

Our Endless Numbered Days is an extraordinary debut and like Franz Liszt’s piece of classical music La Campanella, it draws us in, lulls us into its rhythm and carries us up as it builds to a crescendo, before crashing us down to experience its wild, unruly finale.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.