From Turkish novelist Shafak (The Saint of Incipient Insanities, 2004, etc.), a richly layered narrative concerning misfits and how society views them.
The story of a Victorian-era circus impresario improbably named Keramet Mumî Keske Memis Efendi galvanizes the other dramatis personae in this mishmash. Born the only son in a family of six sisters, Efendi has a transparent face, as if made of wax, and his aunt must literally form his eyes into slits. Because of his suffering in a newly modern society where appearances are of supreme importance, Efendi develops an ability to see what others cannot; he resolves to create a theater of spectacles in the city of Pera under a cherry-colored tent where the ugliest creatures will be displayed. One of his most compelling acts is the hideous Sable-Girl, a half-sable, half-human creature who descends from a lineage of 17th-century Siberian trappers. Meanwhile, the narrative cuts to 1999 in Istanbul’s Hayalifener Apartments, where an enormous woman, writing in the first person, recounts her difficulties moving about in society while also living with a man utterly unsuited for her, a dwarf called B-C. Driven by the unwanted attention the couple attracts (they often appear in public incognito), B-C begins to write a Dictionary of Gazes that will demonstrate in entries seemingly unrelated to each other about how everything has to do with seeing and being seen. It will be “like a shaman’s cloak of forty patches and a single thread,” the dwarf notes, though his girlfriend is skeptical and increasingly anxious as the dictionary absorbs B-C’s attention and hinders him from actually seeing her. In the end, the fragments of this imaginative work, riveting in themselves, resist converging into a cohesive mosaic.
A strange, hallucinatory work.