Three Summers – Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

August is Women in Translation Month, and I am happy that the first novel I chose to read, a foray into Greece, turned out to be such a good one, not surprising given that it’s from the ever reliable NYRB Classics.

Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.

First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”

Set in a village a few miles from Athens, the first chapter is a picture of idyll – the sisters lying in a hayfield, the sky, the wildflowers and the three of them all melted into one. It’s the time for intense conversations and sharing secrets and this summer Katerina, who was otherwise excluded because she was the youngest, will also be part of her sisters’ confidences.

Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us. Maria is sexually bold and the nucleus of attraction for most of the local boys including Marios Parigori, a budding doctor, who is passionately in love with her. But just as she is forward in acting on her desires, Maria displays an equal keenness for the traditional ideas of marriage and motherhood.

Infanta is a stunning beauty but distant, it is very difficult to fathom what’s going on inside her head. Inexpressive yet fearless, Infanta is initially drawn to Marios but later strikes up a friendship with Nikitas fuelled by their passion for horseriding. As their friendship deepens, Nikitas begins to harbor romantic feelings for Infanta, which both excite and torment him, since Infanta remains withdrawn and unwilling to express herself.

Our narrator, Katerina, is imaginative, rebellious and prone to throwing tantrums. Katerina loves being with her sisters but also treasures her time alone when she can lose herself in her thoughts and conjure up an imaginary world influenced by the books she reads.

When the sun’s glare tired my eyes and my limbs felt as if I had drunk sweet wine, I would go to the barn to find quiet, a quiet full of shade and the smell of hay. People and faraway places filled my quiet time there: coloured ribbons blowing in the wind, orange seas, Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms, Odysseus on the islands of Caplypso and Circe.

She falls deeply in love with David, an astronomer, who is temperamentally very different, but reciprocates her sentiments.

While Three Summers burns brightly with light, laughter and innocence, there are also darker currents that simmer underneath. This becomes apparent when we are provided a glimpse into friends and family whose lives are intricately woven with those of the three sisters. Indeed, through their stories, various themes are explored throughout the novel – marriage, motherhood, divorce, abandonment, abuse, sexual awakening, freedom and the bond between siblings.

Their mother Anna, recently divorced from their father Miltos, is beset by bouts of loneliness and sadness although she maintains a dignified presence. Miltos, a banker, never had much time for his wife engrossing himself instead in his hobbies. But despite the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, Maria, Infanta and Katerina bear them no ill will.

Anna was also nice. But ever since she got divorced she didn’t laugh much and she would only talk about her property and sew.

Early on in the novel, the clandestine past of their Polish grandmother (Anna’s mother) fascinates the three sisters, especially Katerina. When a musician visits their home, the Polish grandmother is so besotted with him that she abandons her husband (Dimitris, the Grandfather), and two daughters (Anna and Theresa) and runs off with him to travel the world. Her betrayal means that it is taboo to mention her name in the house, but Katerina can’t help wondering if her mother has been traumatized by that incident, and whether she and her sisters have not inherited some of their grandmother’s traits. Indeed, the Polish grandmother is a force in the novel although she’s never actually present.

Her sister Aunt Theresa, a painter dabbling in landscapes, portraits and still life, has not been lucky with men either. Katerina learns of her aunt’s history, which is marked by the one disturbing incident when she is raped by the man she was destined to marry. It leaves her scarred for life and understandably unable to form any attachments later.

Laura Parigori, Maria’s mother-in-law, is for the most part in her own world, stuck in her past where she revelled as part of an elite Corfu society.

Old memories like sunken ships at the bottom of the sea suddenly rose up from the depths of her soul: hazy, trembling, a broken steering wheel, a bent rudder, masts jutting into space, the drowned treading water.

But somewhere, Laura is also unhappy with her present circumstances and is possibly rebelling inside – rebelling against her womanly fate, the desire for something else dominant, something impossible, something she won’t dare do.

Then there’s Andreas, the ship captain, a character introduced later in the book who epitomizes the ideas of independence, adventure and travel as he sails the world to exotic destinations, never rooted to one place or one person.

Sexual tension throbs throughout the book. Prior to her marriage, Maria’s sexual encounter with a farmer’s son is charged with electricity, Nikitas’ growing passion for Infanta is thwarted by things left unsaid, and Katerina, overwhelmed by her desire for David, is overcome by jealousy when she observes his closeness with Laura Parigori.

As Maria settles down into her new role of a wife and mother, we observe a perceptible shift in the relationship between the siblings. Their bond is as strong as ever and yet things are not the same, at least not since Maria’s altered situation.

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own.

Will Maria find contentment in marriage and motherhood? Will the relationship between her and her husband transition into deep companionship when the first throes of romance are over?  Will Infanta ever devote herself to one man? Will Katerina settle down with David or will her desire to travel the world take over?

Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.

As the novel progresses, the tempestuous Katerina will unravel the mystery of her mother’s best kept secret, will gain some perspective on the life changing decision of marriage, and will hole up in her room for a week so that she can calmly make a choice that will alter the course of her life. But whatever the future holds for the three sisters, Katerina acknowledges that “certainly those three summers will play a role in our lives. I remember that first day of that first summer when we bought our big straw hats.”

The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

The Mermaid of Black Conch has been making waves on the prize circuit. It won the Costa Book of the Year in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize that same year. Three months into 2021, the novel also found a place on the shortlists of both the Folio Rathbones Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. These achievements are pretty remarkable for a book that at one point was almost not published.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a lovely, bittersweet, fable-like story with a mermaid at its centre, encompassing weighty themes of womanhood, desire, slavery, animal rights, and our attitude towards outsiders.

The tale is set in April 1976 in St Constance, a tiny village on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. Our protagonist is Aycayia, a beautiful young woman who has been cursed by jealous wives to live her life as a mermaid and she has been swimming in the Black Conch waters for many centuries now.

One day, while strumming his guitar on one part of the coast, a young fisherman called David spots Aycayia rising above the water, staring intently at him. David is entranced by her, by how exotic she is. Subsequent attempts to glimpse her turn futile, and then after many days he spots her again. Clearly, he is bowled over by her and Aycayia, in turn, is mesmerized by David’s singing.

But then things take a turn for the worse when a couple of American fishermen arrive at the village to participate in a fishing competition. Thomas Clayson is hoping that this expedition will enable some bonding between him and his son Hank, who he thinks spends too much time reading. He wants to enforce in his son, his twisted ideas of masculinity. Enlisting some locals as their crew, the Claysons embark on their fishing trip and manage to entrap Aycayia, who is unwittingly lured towards their ship by David. Aycayia struggles for several hours, but is ultimately defeated…the Americans capture, gag and bind her and take her onshore. As the revelry and celebrations begin full swing at the village inn, David stealthily tiptoes towards where she’s held hostage and rescues her.

He takes her home. From thereon, not only does he start taking care of her with great tenderness, but Aycayia also begins her transformation back to a woman. She loses her mermaid tail, her fins and scales, and must now learn to walk and talk the language of the island.

Zoom to another section, and we are introduced to the character of Arcadia Rain, a white woman and a landlady who owns practically much of the Black Conch island. Arcadia lives alone in a mansion atop a hill with her deaf son. Her partner, a black man called Life, abandons her while pregnant, because he can’t stand being ‘owned’ by a white woman and craves to make a name for himself in the art world. Arcadia hates him and yearns for him at the same time.

Every afternoon, around three o’clock, David dropped Aycayia to Miss Rain’s for lessons. There at the table in the grand room with wooden floors, sat an indigenous woman of the Caribbean; cursed to be a mermaid by her own sisterhood, whose people had all but died out, slaughtered by the Castilian Admiral and his kind; a woman who, as a mermaid, was pulled out of the sea by Yankee men who wanted to auction her off and if not that, stuff her and keep her as a trophy; a woman who was rescued by a Black Conch fisherman; a mermaid who had come back to live as a woman of the Caribbean again. She sat quietly as she learnt language again, from another woman she wasn’t sure she could trust. This woman was white, dappled with freckles, and no matter what she wasn’t, she was of the type who had wiped her people out. Arcadia [Rain] was self conscious, because she only spoke Black Conch English, a mixture of words from the oppressor and the oppressed.

Other characters dotting the story are Priscilla, an evil, bitter woman, who in her greed for money making schemes does not care about hurting others. And a policeman whose help she enlists when she notices something ‘fishy’ going on in David’s home.

All these various story threads come together as the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion. But, will this fairy-tale like story have a happy ending?

The narrative structure is interesting. In every chapter, there’s blend of a third person voice, David’s diary entries some 40 years later recalling his time with Aycayia, and Aycayia’s unique voice presented to us like free-verse poems.

There’s a lot going on in The Mermaid of Black Conch and it is rife with some big ideas. One of them is the legacy of slavery and its burden on subsequent generations. Arcadia Rain is a fair woman and treats the island people well but the taint of her ancestors’ actions (they were plantation owners keeping slaves) sticks to her even when she is trying to erase that blot.

The other dominant viewpoint displayed to the reader is the cruelty perpetrated on outsiders, on people who are significantly different from us. Plus, the novel could also be interpreted as a statement on how exotic creatures are seen through a prism of unabashed greed and shameless profiteering. These themes are explored though the despicable actions of both the American fishermen and Priscilla.

There are some beautiful moments in the book – the blooming of love between David and Aycayia, and the special bond formed between Aycayia and Arcadia’s deaf son as both navigate the intricacies of language and communication.

But The Mermaid of Black Conch is also a novel about womanhood and desire. When Aycayia’s transformation into a woman is complete, the attraction between her and David sparkles like electricity and they give in to desire. Hell-bent on learning the ropes about relationships, David for once is clear about not engaging in flings, but instead taking their relationship to the next level. But is that what Aycayia wants? Aycayia is content being a woman and learning things anew, but she also yearns for the sea where she has spent such a large part of her life. And while her life on land broke the shackles of her curse which bound her in a mermaid’s body, will marriage feel like a trap again?

I want to stay my woman self

even here when my people long dead

I want to be here on land again

but deep inside I know there is still some mix up

I am still half and half

half woman and half cursed woman

cursed still in this new place

The sea is a strong pull

Despite some amount of melodrama in the final pages (the bad guys chasing the good guys in a Hindi movie potboiler kind of way), The Mermaid of Black Conch is a story with a big heart, a beautiful, seamless amalgam of the mythical with the real, and a novel where Roffey pushes the boundaries while exploring myriad motifs of enduring love, racial tension and Caribbean folklore.

Invitation to the Waltz & The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Lately, I have been drawn a lot towards the writing of 20th century female authors, a lot of them I had not heard of previously. I have made some wonderful discoveries – the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns to name a few. Then I came across Rosamond Lehmann. After seeing a lot of love for her on Twitter, I picked out two of her 1930s novels which garnered considerable acclaim during her time – Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets – both focusing on the protagonist Olivia Curtis. And, with these two books, Lehmann has turned out to be another wonderful discovery.

So here are my brief thoughts on both the novels…

Invitation to the Waltz

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate her birthday and present her with gifts. We are introduced to Olivia’s parents, her elder sister Kate, her younger brother James and their uncle Oswald. Olivia’s parents gift her a material of flaming red which gives Olivia considerable joy. She can now get a dress stitched for her very first social event – a ball at the residence of the wealthy Spencers.

Nowadays a peculiar emotion accompanies the moment of looking in the mirror: fitfully, rarely a stranger might emerge: a new self.

It had happened two or three times already, beginning with a day last summer, the languid close of a burning afternoon; coming from the burdened garden into the silent, darkened house: melancholy, solitary, restless, keyed up expectantly-for what?

She looked in the glass and saw herself…Well, what was it? She knew what she looked like, had for some years thought the reflection interesting, because it was her own; though disappointing, unreliable, subject twenty times a day to blottings-out and blurrings, as if a lamp were guttering or extinguished: in any case irremediably imperfect. But this was something else. This was a mysterious face; both dark and glowing; hair tumbling down, pushed back and upwards, as if in currents of fierce energy.

The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the ball, Olivia’s hopes for a thriving schedule of dances, which alternate with the fear of being left alone.

The novel is divided into three sections – the first two portray Kate and Olivia’s anticipation and preparations for the dance, while the last section is entirely devoted to the ball.

The ball itself is beautifully presented with vivid details as Olivia manages to get her share of dancing partners while at the same time is also let down by one or two. The dialogues between Olivia and her various dance partners sparkle and through them we are given a brief sketch of various characters.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. The Curtis sisters could not have turned out more different. Kate, who in the first novel, gives the impression of being sassier of the two, eventually ends up taking the traditional path of marriage, children and settling in the countryside. It’s Olivia who shifts to the big city choosing to lead an independent life with a failed marriage behind her.

While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

An invitation to a family gathering of the Spencers follows. And from thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair, snatched moments played out behind closed doors – in wretched hotels, stuffy cars and Olivia’s tiny rooms interspersed with a couple of getaways, all of it shrouded by a veil of secrecy.

It was then the time began when there wasn’t any time. The journey was in the dark, going on without end or beginning, without landmarks, bearings lost: asleep?…waking…Time whirled, throwing up in paradoxical slow motion a sign, a scene, sharp, startling, lingering as a blow over the heart. A look flared, urgently meaning something, stamping itself for ever ever, ever…Gone, flashed away, a face in the train passing, not ever to be recovered.

There was this inward double living under amorphous impacts of dark and light mixed: that was when we were together…Not being together was a vacuum. It was an unborn place in the shadow of the time before and the time to come. It was remembering and looking forward, drawn out painfully both ways, taut like a bit of elastic…Wearing…

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then gradually followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s calls. Olivia begins to fall in love with Rollo even though it is evident right from the start that their affair has no future.

Besides the two of them coming from different social backgrounds, one of the main obstacles to the affair ever blossoming is the strict moral codes of the time. Status and social standing is critical as is keeping up appearances. There is simply no room for divorce.

Lehmann’s prose in this novel is incredible turning the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new. Her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader. One striking aspect of Lehman’s writing style is the shift in narration from the first person to the third in the space of a few paragraphs. Indeed, it feels that at one point we are inside Olivia’s head as she experiences the turmoil and the anguish of the affair, and at the same time we are the observers watching Olivia’s fate from a distance. This instantly reminded me of Damon Galgut’s wonderful novel  In A Strange Room where Galgut effortlessly switches from the first person to the third in a single paragraph and pulls it off with aplomb.

While Olivia and Rollo are the focal point of the novel, it is also peppered with some wonderful set pieces that paint a picture of Olivia’s bohemian and vibrant friend circle.

In the afterword of my Virago Classics edition, Elizabeth Day highlights how the novel was quite ahead of its time, more so because certain developments described were perhaps shocking for audiences in the 1930s. However, Lehmann stood her ground and ensured that the novel was published the way it was intended to be.

The Weather in the Streets was one of my favourites last month and easily one of the highlights of my reading in the year so far.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

I have a very small Persephone Books collection. But what I have read from their catalogue so far has been simply great. Earlier this year, in March, I really liked Isobel English’s Every Eye, and followed it up with Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven this month. What a lovely novel it turned out to be.

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The opening lines pretty much sets the tone for what is to follow…

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaranson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes. Montreal society is divided roughly into three categories labeled ‘French, ‘English’, and ‘Jewish’, and there is not much coming and going between them, particularly between the Jews and either of the two groups, for although, as a last resort, French and English can be united under the heading ‘Gentile’, such an alliance merely serves to isolate the Jews more than ever.

We know from this that Erika Drake and Marc Reiser fall in love with each other but we are also made aware of how the couple are going to have a long struggle ahead given the backgrounds they come from. Racial tension was rampant in Montreal at the time, but Graham points out that the Jews weren’t necessarily singled out although they bore most of the brunt. There were nuances in discrimination within various strata of Montreal society.

Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.

Erica is an English Canadian born in the affluent Drake family. Her father Charles Drake is the President of the Drake Importing Company and the family resides in a sumptuous home in Westmount. Erica has two siblings – an elder brother Anthony and a younger sister Miriam. Both Anthony and Miriam marry partners against Charles Drake’s wishes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much because he is not close to either of them and does not care greatly for their opinion.

But Charles shares a special bond with Erica. They get along very well and Charles respects her in a way he does not respect his other two children.

Marc Reiser is Jewish, his parents having migrated to Canada from Austria several years earlier. Leopold Reiser, Marc’s father owns a small planning mill in Manchester, Ontario. Marc has an elder brother David who is a doctor in a remote, rural region of the country.

The book opens right in the midst of a big dinner party held at the Drake residence. Marc Reiser is brought to the gathering by an acquaintance of the Drakes’ – the French Canadian Rene de Sevigny whose sister has married Anthony Drake. Marc Reiser knows no one at the party and soon Rene abandons him leaving Marc to fend for himself. Eventually Erica and Mark meet and strike up a conversation. They immediately hit it off. When it’s time to say goodbye, Erica offers to introduce Marc to her father but Charles looks through Marc and completely ignores him.

Erica is offended by Charles’ rudeness. Attempts to make him understand this are futile because Charles is set in his ways and refuses to budge from his deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

Charles behaviour does not deter Erica from seeing Marc. Quite the contrary. Soon the relationship between the two blossoms and starts getting serious. And Erica’s parents are aware of this.

A significant chunk of the novel then revolves around the discussions that Erica has with her parents regarding Marc as she tries to make them come around to her point of view. Erica, thankfully, is not entirely on her own. Her sister Miriam supports her and immediately likes Marc when she is introduced to him for the first time. Their parents, however, think differently and judge Marc without even meeting him. Continuous quarrels with her parents finally begin to take a toll on Erica and her health.

Will Erica succeed? Will she and Marc eventually surmount all odds so that they can marry?

Erica Drake is an interesting creation. Her upbringing means that she grows up with the same set of prejudices but she is discerning enough to be ashamed of them and change her way of thinking.

She had met a good many Jews before Marc, but in some way which already seemed to her inexplicable she had neglected to relate the general situation with any one individual. Evidently some small and yet vital part of the machinery of her thought had failed to work until this moment, or worse still, she might even have defeated its efforts to function by taking refuge in the comfortable delusion that even if these prejudices and restrictions were actually in effective operation, they would only be applied against – well, against what is usually designated as ‘the more undesirable type of Jew’. In other words, against people who more or less deserved it.

Now she saw for the first time that it was the label, not the man, that mattered.

Indeed, by working as a reporter at the Post, she has no qualms coming down the society ladder a bit or two even among her own set.

When she was twenty-one, her fiancé had been killed in a motor accident two weeks before she was to be married; not long after, she awoke to the realization that her father’s income had greatly shrunk as a result of the depression and that it would probably be a long time before she would fall in love again. She got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing,. It took people quite a while to get used to the change.

Marc loves Erica enough to keep meeting her till regimental duty beckons him, but at the same time he is bogged down by the seemingly insurmountable odds against them. He has a fatal sense of the relationship not surviving even though Erica thinks otherwise.

The implication of racial prejudice, then, is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations. Erica tries hard to make Charles see Marc as an individual and appreciate his many qualities rather than being dead set against him because of general racism towards Jews. Every individual is different and it is important to understand these nuances as against taking a collective approach and putting everyone on the same boat.

The other theme Graham looks at is the power play between men and women. This is displayed in details, such as Erica’s irritation when Rene orders lunch for her at a restaurant without consulting her and also explored a bit deeper when Charles tries to persuade Erica to leave her job at the Post and join the family business instead.

…as a woman you can just go so far and then you’re stuck in a job where you depend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Earth and High Heaven then is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out. Plus, Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues between the characters.

Highly recommended!

Madonna in a Fur Coat – Sabahattin Ali (tr. Maureen Freely & Alexander Dawe)

Sabahattin Ali’s brief biography on the inside flap of my edition makes for interesting reading. He was considered one of the most influential Turkish writers of the twentieth century, and owned and edited a popular weekly newspaper, which became a target of government censorship. Ominously, he was assassinated in 1948 while travelling secretly to Bulgaria. But by whom he was murdered and where he was buried remains a mystery.

Madonna in a Fur Coat became a bestseller in Turkey, but it was little known outside the country before it was translated for a larger English speaking audience.  This is a book I read in January but am only reviewing now as the present worrying state of things have hampered my blogging a little bit.

Madonna in a Fur Coat begins in Ankara with our narrator reminiscing about the novel protagonist’s Raif Efendi – a humble and unassertive man.

Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts. As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile. Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man. Indeed, he was rather ordinary, with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.

Our narrator has lost his job, but manages to secure a new position in a factory where Efendi is working as a translator of German. At first, our narrator finds Efendi’s lack of confidence annoying, but slowly the friendship between them grows. He is even invited to Efendi’s home. What he sees though is not a family living in harmony. Efendi lives not only with his wife but also with an extended family for whom he is responsible financially. What makes matters worse is that while these family members expect Efendi to provide for them, they display an utter lack of respect for him. Efendi takes it all on the chin and it is this passiveness that puzzles our narrator.

Things come to a head, when Efendi on falling very ill, calls our narrator by his bedside with a request to burn his diary. Our narrator, however, manages to convince him to read its contents before destroying them.

And this is where the second part of the story begins, set mostly in Berlin and written in his diary, as Efendi recounts his earlier life and the chain of events that culminate in his present tragic state.

Efendi in his early days is expected to join the family business of manufacturing soap, but he shows no aptitude for it. He decides to head to Berlin instead to study painting.

On one of his visits to a museum, he is captivated by a particular painting – that of a Madonna in a fur coat – a painting which draws him to the museum repeatedly. It is a self-portrait by the artist Maria Puder, of whom he knows nothing.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman.

So caught up he is by this work of art that he fails to recognize the artist in person when she approaches him. Eventually they strike up a conversation and gradually this transforms into a relationship. But while Efendi is able to express his innermost thoughts very eloquently in his diary, he is unable to actually convey them to Maria. And this in a way proves to be his undoing.

It is hardly a spoiler to say that their relationship is doomed given what we know right at the start of Efendi’s present circumstances.

One of the themes Sabahattin Ali explores is the stereotypes prevalent in relationships between men and women. It is Maria Puder who takes the initiative in her romance with Efendi. She is attracted to him precisely because he is sensitive, kind and leaning towards the arts, which means that he is very unlike the typical man she normally comes across.

She said: ‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men…I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say…just know that I am always completely open…like this…like a man…I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone…’

She looked me over before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you…Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a younger girl…’

Madonna in a Fur Coat then is a beautifully written novel tinged with melancholia – the thought of what could have been, of things left unsaid and the consequences of not taking charge. Sabahattin Ali’s prose is languid and captivating and makes the reader feel sorry for Efendi’s plight despite his passive demeanour. There is a fascinating psychological depth to the novel, particularly in the way we learn about what continually torments Efendi’s mind and soul.

Indeed, while I read this novel in January, it continues to linger in my mind even now.