With Sensuality and Coolness, a Debut Novel Considers the (Partial) Truths We Tell About Ourselves

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A young woman sits alone in a cafe in Paris. How lucky she is, you might think if you happened past, to have her life ahead of her, to be free in this lovely spot in this most romantic of cities.

But people are seldom who we imagine them to be. The stories we assume for them are not the stories they tell themselves. Nunu, the narrator of Aysegul Savas’s delicate, melancholy debut novel, “Walking on the Ceiling,” does not feel bold or playful or sophisticated as she sips her coffee in Paris; she feels invisible, bereft.

“I wondered how it was that people knew what to do,” she says, thinking about her fellow diners. “Small things, I mean. The rituals of a day. The hours.”

Nunu has come to France to study literature after the death of her mother back home in Istanbul. Like a snail curling fearfully into its shell, she is receding from the world. Her isolation is the kind peculiar to big cities, magnified because she is estranged — from the world around her and also from herself. Her loneliness radiates like heat from the pages of this book.

Invited to a picnic by another student, Nunu is overwhelmed by what she perceives to be the easy camaraderie of the others in the group, and turns back before they see her. Forcing herself to order a proper meal in the cafe, she brings the food home and leaves it to rot in the refrigerator.

Savas’s novel unfolds in a series of 72 short, non-chronological chapters, pieces of a mosaic that demand careful attention as you attempt to fit them together. (Chapter 28 is a single parenthetical sentence of less than 40 words.) Gradually we understand that Nunu is writing from present-day Istanbul, where she has finally settled, and that we are reading her recollections of her past in that city and in Paris and London.

The unreliability of memory; the ways we talk to ourselves and to each other; how we can act as detectives in our own lives, combing the past for clues; how places can seem clearer from afar than when we are there — all these themes are touched on in Savas’s spare, disarmingly simple prose. She writes with both sensuality and coolness, as if determined to find a rational explanation for the irrationality of existence, and for the narrator’s opaque understanding of herself.

There is, for instance, Nunu’s lonely, bewildering childhood; her father, whose promise fizzled to nothing before his premature death; her mother, who fell into a kind of bewildered depression; her home, in which most everything was left unsaid. There is an interlude in England, where Nunu attends university and goes through the motions of normalcy with Molly, her friendly roommate, and Luke, her thoughtful boyfriend.

And there is her time in Paris, where she is adrift until she is rescued by the unconventional sort-of friendship she forms with M., an older male writer known for his lyrical writing about Istanbul. They send finely crafted emails and go on meandering walks, talking about writing, exploring the difference between art and artifice, spinning tales for one another. M. relishes Nunu’s company, scavenging her stories for material, and speaks enthusiastically of the “invisible thread” connecting them.

But Nunu jealously guards her real nature. No one has a complete picture of her, because she does not have a complete picture of herself.

With Luke, she presents herself as “dark and exotic,” the victim of an abusive childhood. This is a deliberate portrait. “I was building my life piece by piece,” she says, “and it seemed that I had started from scratch.”

With Molly, her English roommate, she creates “a parallel life that seemed like something from a book or a film,” featuring an exotic, eccentric mother and a noisy Mediterranean family boisterously crowded around the dinner table.

Neither persona is precisely accurate, though each is partly true. In scene after scene, Nunu struggles to reconcile her memory with her desire to make its jagged details fit together.

Savas doesn’t write much about modern-day Istanbul, but menace lurks around the corner of her prose. There are hints of distressing change, of a newly dangerous political climate. Most of Nunu’s old friends are abandoning the city just as she is returning.

She takes a job at a travel magazine, where she indulges her emotional wanderlust and natural wistfulness, writing about cities that are “more beautiful, less troubled” than her own. Sometimes you want to shake her out of her stupor; other times you feel desperately sorry for her.

Home for good, she has the leisure to ponder her friendship with M. and how it has colored her view of her past. Their relationship never becomes physical; there is none of the alarming, “Asymmetry”-style exploitation we have come to expect in such situations. But there is an imbalance nonetheless. Nunu does not want to be Scheherazade forever; she wants the freedom to tell her own story to herself.

And so her story emerges, slowly. Mostly what she remembers is the deafening quiet. As a child in a home filled with near-pathological reticence, she secretly devised something she called “the silence game,” which involved seeing who — she or her mother — could go longest without succumbing to the weakness of speaking. It was a way to avoid getting hurt. But Nunu was not just a victim. As she got older, she turned the silence into a weapon.

“It kept growing — this meanness inside me,” she says. “I knew how to hurt her, too. So slyly you could hardly point to it.”

But though Nunu remembers her mother’s faults, she also remembers her fierceness, her independence, her struggles to do the right — the normal — thing. She recalls a particular pair of eyeglasses her mother wore, decorated with blue and green dots, in a valiant effort to be cheerful. “I wonder whether I could have told a different story of my mother all along, about the ordinary course of a life,” she writes.

She learns that stories — what you include, what you withhold, what you manipulate for your audience — can drown out the truth. By the end, it feels as if she is coming close to matching the words to the reality, if that’s even possible.

“It is a privilege to have a story,” Savas writes, “to know your own narrative as surely as you know your name.”

Sarah Lyall

Read more: Mental Illness Is All in Your Brain — or Is It?

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