‘And that is how it all began. We were three women fated to take refuge in a story, looking out for each other as we moved forwards, three women soon to become four.’
I’ll admit from the outset to being unsure of what to expect from Ece Temelkuran’s debut novel, Women Who Blow on Knots. Described as the story of four women’s road trip from Tunisia to Lebanon amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the Arab Spring, the setting and the plot seemed to make for unlikely bedfellows. Yet as I found myself increasingly drawn in to this weighty novel (it sits at around 500 pages), the colours, tensions and personal stories which sit at the heart of the plot became impossible to resist. The narrative unfolds through the voice of a Turkish journalist recently made unemployed who is joined on her travels by academic Maryam, Tunisian activist and dancer Amira and, later, the mysterious Madam Lilla whose secretive nature is gradually peeled back to reveal an older woman with a range of links to various intelligence networks.
As this unusual group of characters begin their journey it takes a while for the different voices and personalities to become real, but thanks to Temelkuran’s keen eye for detail they soon take on their own identities. The ability to depict such characters so vividly may, in part, be due to Temelkuran’s own experiences as an investigative journalist and the way in which she was suddenly fired from her job with the Turkish newspaper Habertürk in 2012, falling victim to a political crackdown by the Erdogan regime in 2012. Many of the scenes of daily life are undoubtedly drawn from her own observations of the meaning of liberty and freedom of expression in an area torn apart by political and social division. Such insight is made all the more fascinating by the way in which Temelkuran chooses to hone in on the small struggles of daily life on the ground in these areas. Scenes depicting the segregation of men and women and the sometimes harsh circumstances faced by children do not make for easy reading, but they are essential to the balance of fiction and reality which the novel strikes.
In spite of the geographical distance covered by the novel and the seriousness of its political and social backdrop, the narrative maintains a swift pace and even makes time for some lighter moments. Temelkuran’s writing frequently treads a delicate balance between satirical and serious, a balance that occasionally slips into the farcical as the characters are accused as having ‘lost [themselves] in an Al Jazeera drama’. Yet it is these lighter comments which make the novel infinitely readable, steering it away from what might otherwise have easily become a very sobering commentary on the lives of Muslim women in such divided regions. As the four women come to know and rely on each other before starting their journey they are also conscious of the ‘shadows’ which seem to chase them around the Tunisian village in which they are staying; a poignant reminder that danger is never far away, even in happier moments.
At this point it is important to note the contribution made by the novel’s translator, Alexander Dawe. It is difficult to comment on the work of a translator without the ability to read the translated text against the original, but the fact that the novel retains the lyrical qualities and natural flow which were commented on when it was first published in Turkey are surely testimony to Dawe’s role in retaining the essence of Temelkuran’s prose.
Early reviews likened both the original novel and its translation to a fairytale and with its almost rhythmical narrative structure and mesmerising scenery it’s easy to see why. There is something very lyrical about the way Temelkuran writes, with different voices weaving across each other to tell a shared story which, at times, has a distinctly fantastical feel. But if Women Who Blow on Knots is a fairytale, it is of a new genre of fairytale, a bittersweet story which centres on a small group of women who learn to live with, understand and accept each other. This is no Disney-style fairytale where characters are rescued, problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after. Instead, it is a story which promotes tolerance and female solidarity, whatever the circumstances. Here Madam Lilla’s cautionary words ring out as she warns that ‘the greatest crime is to betray one of your own. The price is too high to pay. If you betray your daughter or your sister your soul will never recover’.
Does this message of female solidarity and unity ring true in a setting as complex as the Arab Spring? The answer is as complex as the question, but perhaps not always. There are moments in the novel where the story seems to overtake its setting and the fictional elements of the story feel at odds with their political and social backdrop. This sense of dislocation is particularly noticeable as the true motivation behind Madam Lilla’s desire to join the younger women on their road trip is revealed and her actions take a more sinister turn. From a reader’s perspective, these are the kind of twists which Temelkuran uses so effectively to drive the novel forward and it certainly makes for a compelling conclusion to the plot. Yet as the drama reaches its heady climax the subtle social observations which characterised the early chapters of the novel are forced into second place by the characters’ personal dramas. In spite of these moments, or perhaps because of them, the novel is a reminder that everyone has a story to tell, regardless of how difficult that story may be for others to hear.
Women Who Blow on Knots is a fearless debut which draws on Temelkuran’s experience and sets a high benchmark, not just for anyone looking to depict the challenging complexity of the role of women in the modern day Middle East, but for those who want to capture the essence of resistance and power in the most unlikely of circumstances. Around half way through this absorbing tale there is a line which rallies characters and readers alike: ‘come now brave warrior. Show us the lands and the seas through your eyes. Come.’ Ultimately, in this remarkable novel we can see how Temelkuran has answered her own powerful call to expression and it is beautifully done.
Women Who Blow on Knots is available now.