White on White by Ayşegül Savaş critique – storytelling in cold retreat | fiction

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Pin a hurry to name the most influential novel of the last decade, you could do worse than Rachel Cusk’s To present, which laid the groundwork for decluttered fashionable fiction about barely-there narrators floating through random encounters in unspecified European cities.

Jhumpa Lahiri (Or) and Katie Kitamura (Intimacies) have well-thumbed, guess-work copies, and it seems a safe bet that Turkish-born Ayşegül Savaş, who writes in (American) English, also had one on hand when composing this oddly gripping story. about a graduate student witnessing an artist’s marital breakdown.

Its unnamed protagonist comes to an unnamed town to spend a year looking at gothic nude sculptures as part of research for a thesis on medieval views of nudity. She rents an apartment from Pascal, an academic who lives in a nearby town with his wife, Agnès, a middle-aged painter. A few months into the narrator’s rental, Agnès shows up to join her in the apartment, supposedly in a brief return to town to plan a new exhibition of works inspired (coincidentally) by local sculpture.

A special bond ensues during coffee breaks at the kitchen table as the narrator, eager for her magnetically elegant landlady’s approval, listens intently to Agnes recounting at length her bitter experiences as a daughter, artist, wife and mother. of two children. In contrast, we learn almost nothing from the narrator, as Agnes’ story unfolds in fragmentary vignettes. When Agnès took Pascal home to her parents for the first time, he cut the visit short to write a paper for a symposium; when, after the birth of her first child, Agnes befriended another new mom, Pascal hired an “extraordinarily beautiful” au pair to save her needy company.

If the reader more or less immediately understands that Pascal is somehow a false ‘un, Savaş deftly lifts a veil over the exact form of his iniquity until a surprisingly tense climax that sees him deliver his version of the story. For a novel in which, for the most part, very little happens, Savaş impressively maintains the suspense via, say, eerily empty descriptions of the sunlight playing on the fixtures and fittings of the apartment. Rare lapses occur when she seems worried that the action, or lack thereof, may not hold our attention. When Agnes says she’ll be staying in the apartment longer, the narrator’s line closes the segment with unnecessary force: “I didn’t mind, I said. In fact, I was glad to hear it, even though I wondered what had kept her away from her marriage.

It helps that Savaş is happy to recognize the built-in artifice of the book’s delivery mechanism, or what the faceless protagonist calls “the monologue that unfolds daily, endlessly.” “I go on and on,” admits Agnès; the narrator, for her part, tells us that she does not know how to “get up and leave”. She is essentially an old-fashioned frame narrator who lent a touch of psychological intrigue to the creeping weirdness of her situation; ultimately, the book unfolds as a sort of tale of a year abroad in which her upbringing is not so much about her studies as Agnes’ painful expedition of the battle lines of later life.

At one point, Agnès explains that she took on “the challenge of painting only white”. By telling his story in a deliberately icy place, white on white rises to a similar task, though its elegant austerity can’t quite shake the sense that it also represents a shrewd dodge from the more basic grunt work of novel writing.

white on white by Ayşegül Savaş is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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