Gardens of Water, by Alan Drew. Published February 2008 by Random House. Literary Fiction.
Gardens of Water is the first novel by author Alan Drew, who moved to Turkey to teach English just days before the horrible Marmara earthquake in 1999. This novel is the story of how one Kurdish family weathers this life-changing natural disaster.
The family is made up of Sinan Basioglu, his wife Nilufer, teenage daughter Irem and eight year old son Ismail. The story opens on the day of Ismail's circumcision, and the reader learns immediately that this traditional Muslim family values its little boy above all. Ismail is treated like a king on his special day, which Sinan only regrets is less fanciful than his own ceremony as a boy. Irem and Nilufer wait on the men, and the guests, an American family living upstairs in their apartment building, are ignored.
Sinan and his family are Kurds in Turkey, and Sinan blames America and, by extension, all Americans, for the sufferings his family and his people have endured. Irem, on the other hand, is rebellious- fascinated by and drawn to things Western, especially the Americans' vaguely rebellious son, Dylan and the freedom he represents, and resentful of her lesser status as a daughter. What starts as innocent flirting becomes a full-blown teenage love affair after the earthquake, when the Basioglu family is living in a refugee camp run by Dylan's father Marcus as she looks for validation and escape. It is in the camp that the family tensions become unbearable. Irem wants to be free of the confines of a Muslim woman's life, while Sinan wants dignity and respectability. He feels that his daughter's wishes are in conflict with his own, and as he works to get the family out of the camps and back with Kurdish relatives, they pull and stretch at their bonds until something has to snap.
Drew has written a very, very good book. It is meticulously crafted- little things that seem like throwaways at first, turn out to be careful foreshadowing. The prose is rich and descriptive without being flowery or overblown, but what is most remarkable is the empathy and respect he shows for his narrators, Sinan and Irem. The book alternates perspectives between the two, giving each a turn to explain an event or offer his or her perspective; sometimes we see the same event twice but never the same way. We see all of their missed connections and misunderstandings- how they yearn for each other but cannot reach through the thick smoke of pride. The ending is so sad because it didn't need to be the way it is, if only one had had the courage to make a last attempt.
That ending, which I won't give away, frustrated me but I understand how it fits into the bigger picture. The big story about this book really is the degree of understanding Drew has for his characters, even the supporting ones. I was particularly struck by how he understood Irem's inner world and how logically, and sadly, her chain of events plays out. I think Gardens of Water would be a terrific book for book clubs especially, because it offers complex characters and situations, pays attention to the characters' reactions and refuses to judge. In other words, there is a lot of food for thought and food for discussion. It's almost unsatisfying for me to not talk about the issues raised and the perspectives on offer. Gardens of Water seems like a book that was almost made for conversation. Go read it, and then find someone to talk to.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.