Penguin Random House Canada, August 22, 2017.
Ten years ago, I read Snow – my first book by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk – and absolutely loved it. I haven’t been as impressed with Pamuk’s more recent work, although I’m not sure if it’s the slower pace, weighed down by symbolism and archetypical characters, or if my expectations are too high after my experience with Snow.
The Red-Haired Woman is heavily influenced by both western and eastern legends, specifically Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and the Persian story of Rostam and Sohrab. Although these stories provide complex layers to the novel, they also sometimes make the characters feel less real and more like symbols for the themes that Pamuk is exploring here – the relationships between fathers and sons, the idea of individual freedom versus the government, and ultimately the gray areas between good and evil. It’s a lot to take on, and it explains why the story sometimes becomes dry and unable to hold the reader’s attention.
The novel is set in Istanbul in the 1980s. Cem is sixteen years old, and he spends his summer as the apprentice to a well-digger, Master Mahmut, in a small town outside the city. As they desperately search for water in the barren land surrounding them, they tell stories at night to pass the time, including the legends mentioned above, which both man and boy become fixated upon. Oedipus Rex, the story of a king who kills his father and marries his mother, specifically becomes a loose allegory for Cem’s larger lifelong struggles.
After a day of digging wells, Cem goes into town to visit the tent of some travelling performers who act out “morality tales” for the crowd. When Cem meets the older, married, red-haired woman who performs in the plays, he becomes obsessed and follows her around town. To Cem’s surprise, the two experience one night of passion together, before an accident at work causes Cem to flee back to Istanbul. His experiences that summer weigh him down with a sense of guilt and shame that follows him into adulthood.
Thirty years later, Cem and his wife have the opportunity to purchase the land where he dug the well that summer. When Cem travels back to the small town, he discovers that his past has not stayed buried as he expected – and the red-haired woman has a surprising secret for him. The mystery elements tie the novel together from start to finish, although the big reveal is certainly not surprising. The Red-Haired Woman is much more concerned with its multi-layered plot, rich in literary and historical references, than in developing the mystery or the characters themselves. Although the novel didn’t always hold my attention, I did appreciate the complex layers of story and history – and I think it will only get better with each re-read.
I received this book from Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.