Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review - Snow by Orhan Pamuk

I loved Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk’s book My Name is Red. It was gorgeous; it was exquisite; it was elaborate; it was truly original. Save for the descriptions of the snow, itself, Snow doesn’t have the elegant beauty of My Name is Red and it’s far, far more political in nature. There’s nothing wrong with a book being political in nature, of course, but it’s just not my cup of tea. It took me so, so long to finish this book because I would read a little, find I just didn’t care, put it down, and often fall asleep.

While My Name is Red was set in the sixteenth century, Snow is set in the present day. It centers around an Istanbul poet, Ka, who’s been living in exile in Frankfurt, Germany for the past twelve years. However, as the book opens, Ka is on a bus heading to Kars, a mountain village in one of the poorest sections of Turkey, at the Russian border, to attend his mother’s funeral. And of course, it’s snowing, a snowfall that won’t stop until the book’s final page. (In Turkish, “kar” means “snow.”)

One of Ka’s friends, a journalist with an Istanbul newspaper, asks Ka to look into a very strange happening in Kars…the rash of suicides among the “head scarf girls,” girls who have been expelled from college for wearing a scarf to cover their heads after it’s been forbidden to do so.

Ka agrees to do a little sleuthing in Kars, but the mystery of the “head scarf girls” isn’t his primary motive, nor is helping his friend. Ka is hoping to be reunited with Ipek, a woman he knew during his days as a student, a woman he never really stopped loving, a woman whose sister, Kadife is…who else…the leader of the “head scarf girls.” Once married, Ipek is now separated from her husband and lives in a dilapidated building known, fittingly, as “The Snow Palace Hotel.”

As the snow continues to fall, Ka does attempt to learn about the suicides of the “head scarf girls,” but he finds people are very reluctant to talk to him. He’s been living in the west for twelve years, after all, he’s far wealthier than the citizens of Kars, and because of those two things alone, he’s simply not trustworthy.

Eventually, Ka meets with an Islamic extremist named Blue and the convoluted plot of Snow begins to meander and take on a rather picaresque quality as Ka wanders from encounter to encounter during the raging snowstorm.

One of the book’s defects is the fact that Ka is such a dislikeable character. I can tolerate dislikeable protagonists, and when they are drawn well, they fascinate me, but Ka, for much of the book, acts like a spoiled child and not enough like a responsible, grown man. He’s too weak, too ineffectual. He doesn’t even know if he belongs to the East or to the West. This would be okay, if Ka were simply wrestling with his problem of identity, but he’s not. It’s almost as though he doesn’t care; he waffles, depending on who he meets.

Snow is, of course, a symbolic book, almost an allegory of East-meets-West politics and Ka, because of his twelve years in exile, has come to symbolize the West. The snowstorm that blurs and isolates everything is symbolic of the blurring of both the East and the West in Kars, and of course, of Kars’ isolation.

Pamuk is an author who usually concentrates his efforts on male characters. Snow, however, is different. In Snow, Pamuk gives us two very strong female characters: Ipek and Kadife, in addition to the “head scarf girls.” While I don’t care for feminist literature or “chick lit,” I liked this inclusion of strong female characters and think it deepened Pamuk’s work. And for all his childishness and naïveté only Ka seems to realize that the “head scarf girls” are human beings and not a political or religious symbol:

It wasn’t the elements of poverty or helplessness that Ka found so shocking. Neither was it the constant beatings to which these girls were subjected, or the insensitivity of the fathers who wouldn’t even let them go outside, or the constant surveillance of jealous husbands. The thing that shocked and frightened Ka was the way these girls had killed themselves: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines.

To his enormous credit, Ka manages to see that just as each snowflake is unique, each “head scarf girl” is also unique and irreplaceable and deserves to be treated as such.

While Pamuk never brings the elaborate plot of Snow to a truly satisfying conclusion, he does bring the village of Kars vividly to life in both its beauty and its squalor, and for me, at least, this was extremely interesting.

The conclusion is quite dramatic, almost melodramatic in nature, and instead of provoking the reflection that I’m sure Pamuk intended, it is almost comical. It’s also far too long, and its length detracts from its power. I think this is a book that would have been served well with the talents of a good editor.

Snow is a very realistic novel, just about as different from the fantastic and glittering My Name is Red as one can get. It’s certainly a book worth reading, but, save for the hauntingly rendered beauty of the snow and the sadness that permeates every corner of Kars, not much else in Snow lingers.


Recommended: Beautiful, but sad, portrait of an isolated Turkish village, haunting images of snow and ice; the protagonist, however, is a weak character, and the picaresque style can be tiresome at times.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

There’s not much I love more than a Victorian mystery. An intricate mystery, whose resolution I can’t guess from the first third of the book. Wilkie Collins’ wonderfully labyrinthine book, The Woman In White is just such a mystery. Brilliantly paced and brilliantly plotted, The Woman in White, first published in serial form in 1859, is also packed with wonderfully complex, fascinating, and fully realized characters.

The book begins with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter with the strange and enigmatic “woman in white” on a moonlit London road. Hartright assists the mysterious woman in departing the city, and subsequently learns that she has escaped from the asylum. Hartright is intrigued, knowing there is far more to the story, and wishing to learn the details. But Hartright, himself, must depart London.

A drawing master, Hartright has been engaged to tutor two students at Limmeridge House in Cumberland, one of them the beautiful heiress, Laura Fairlie, who is engaged to marry the baronet, Sir Percival Glyde. Hartright and Laura soon fall in love, but rather than give in to her feelings, Laura asks Hartright to leave Limmeridge House, as she intends to keep the promise she made to her deceased father as well as to her fiancé, Sir Percival, despite the fact that a mysterious “woman in white” warns her against the marriage, telling her that Sir Percival is “evil.” Laura’s determination sends her, her half-sister, Marian Halcombe, and Water, as well as the reader, into a spiral of danger and intrigue that doesn’t let up until the last page has been turned.

I usually dislike books written in the first person, finding it too affected, but I really enjoyed The Woman In White. Though it’s written in the first person, Collins switches from one narrator to another with each chapter. (Narrators include Hartright, the Glyde family lawyer, Marian Halcombe, an eccentric invalid uncle, the housekeeper, an over-the-top Italian, etc.) This has the added advantage of making it near-to-impossible for any reader to figure out the mystery, as the reader only learns information as the various narrators learn it. This also makes the leaving of clues almost impossible. Each narrator adds a piece to the puzzle the prior narrator did not know or twists the information already imparted by a previous narrator.

The characters in The Woman In White are incredibly well drawn. Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie seem almost too good to be true, though, and a little bland, but most of the other characters are a mix of good and not-so-good, and for that reason, are very realistic. I found Sir Percival’s “charming” friend, the Italian Count Fosco, a man who likes white mice, poison, and vanilla bonbons, especially interesting.

Personally, I thought this book’s plot contained a lot of really good twists. I put that down, in part, to the fact that it was first published in installments, the way most of Collins’ and Dicken’s work was published. I’ve read that when it was initially published in 1859, people lined up to buy the current installment, wondering what would happen next. As Julian Symons points out, William “Gladstone canceled a theatre engagement to go on reading it.” I think I might have, too. I thought the pacing was wonderful, and for me, there were no “slow parts” even though the book is quite long at close to 700-pages.

The writing itself is brilliant. Collins was a master of suspense, and The Woman In White is wonderfully creepy. Surprisingly, it’s also very witty and, at times, humorous, as well. It is also, as the excerpt below will show, quite brave:

She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

The “lady” in question is Marian Halcombe, and really, she isn’t ugly, though she many have seemed so to a Victorian gentleman conditioned to respond to blonde hair, a creamy complexion, a sweet voice, a rosebud mouth, and a voluptuously petite frame. Marian Halcombe, though possessing none of the qualities above, was honest, truthful, strong, warm, loyal, and independent. A man could not wish for a more steadfast partner.

Readers who have trouble allowing themselves to be transported back to Victorian times, and who are heavily invested in the equality of the sexes, might find this book tough going. Independent though she is, it is Marian, herself, who often raises the question of the shortcomings of the fairer sex. And modern readers might wonder what Walter Hartright sees in the vacuous Laura, when the resourceful and intelligent Marian is also available. The book’s sexism didn’t bother me. I know things were different in Victorian times, and if truth be told, men today respond to beauty more often than brains, at least initially. The happiest couple in the book are Count Fosco and his wife, who before marrying her husband was loud and obnoxious. The Count, we are told, “fixed all that” and now the Countess Fosco obeys her husband’s every command, and she does it quite happily as well.

Bottom line, this book kept me enthralled from the first page to the last. It raises questions of identity and insanity, and it takes the reader into the dark recesses of the English country manor and the madhouse, seamlessly combining Gothic horror and psychological realism. It’s a classic that richly deserves to be called a classic. I reread this book every year or two, and each time, it’s as fresh and wonderful as it was the first time. I recommend it to all lovers of Victorian literature and all lovers of mysteries alike.


Recommended: Yes, to all lovers of Victorian literature and to all lovers of good mysteries. The only readers I think should keep away are those who are going to be upset by the book’s Victorian sexism. The sexes definitely were not equal during Victorian times, and if readers can’t accept that they weren’t, this book might be upsetting for them.