“This is a story of freedom and love. The story of two young people ailing in heart and soul. I was one of them.” Had I been browsing in the bookshop rather than reading for review, I probably wouldn’t have made it beyond that mawkish opening line. But that would have been a mistake. Şebnem İşigüzel’s The Girl in the Tree is a bold and captivating novel.
The book recounts the story of "The Girl in the Tree", a young woman who, in a moment of crisis and personal tragedy, flees from Cihangir to Gülhane Park, determined to spend the rest of her life atop trees. From her perch, she tells us her story and that of three generations of women living in Cihangir. The book is about how violence, particularly against and between women, infects a society and is passed down through generations.
Philip Pullman once wrote that the narrator is one of literature’s most interesting characters. İşigüzel capitalizes on this. Our narrator tells us about the young woman's thoughts and anecdotes about her life. The particular way the narrator tells the story is used to build the character. The Girl is unreliable, she lies to the reader and herself, she misremembers things, mixes up the order of events and overlooks important details only to return to them later. That scrambling up of events can be confusing and frustrating to the reader, but it is how memory works.
In the same vein, the political and philosophic opinions and musings the narrator expresses are at times simplistic and crude. But that is how a lot of people in their late teens and early twenties experience politics. It forms another part of the character that the book slowly constructs.
The story focuses on specific Istanbul identity, that of the neighborhoods of Nişantaşı, Cihangir and Caddebostan. It might be one of the best depictions of that segment of Turkish life I’ve seen in fiction (Orhan Pamuk has all the previous generations of Nişantaşı Turks on lockdown). The crowds the Girl hangs out with are obsessed with Amy Winehouse. It is the Istanbul of the millennials. Of course one cannot discuss that generation without bringing up Gezi. For the book's heroine, Gezi is both a moment of political awakening and an insurmountable disappointment.
İşigüzel’s book is unusually structured. But on that point, it features an interesting scene: the Girl recounts a conversation she once had with a literature teacher who stomped on her high school novel writing attempts. The literature teacher tells the Girl:
“You drag out the story too much. The dialogues are cliched, overly simple, and devoid of meaning”
“Just like in real life?”
Still, the structure gets wary after a while. Overall, the book could prove polarizing. I believe many women can identify with the girl and her situation. The Girl is a great character and her life stories are riveting. İşigüzel's novel is bold. I look forward to reading more of her work.
Luke Frostick is the editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books. His articles on Turkish politics and art have appeared in Open Democracy and Cornucopia. His short fiction has appeared in a range of magazines.