LAST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2015
Orhan’s Inheritance, by Aline Ohanisian
The Armenian Diaspora in 1915 is still unacknowledged as genocide by Turkey a century after 1.5 million Armenians were deported and driven into the Syrian Desert to die because Muslim Turkey, at war with Christian Britain, France and Russia, believed that all Christian Armenian residents were traitors in their midst and must be expelled from the country.
Aline Ohanisian, whose great-grandmother survived to imprint upon the family forever the horror and sorrow of that time, gives us a story that deserves to be unforgettable – as a family chronicle; a love story; and a heart piercing record of a nation thrusting off the yoke of the Sultans, embracing democracy and the parliamentary system for the first time, yet still turning against its own because they worship a different God.
`It is 1990. OrhanTürkoğlu’s beloved grandfather Kemal has died in his nineties in the remote village of Karod, where he established the successful family rug-weaving business a lifetime before. Orhan manages the family business interests in Istanbul, and loves his work designing the beautiful patterns of the kilims that are woven and dyed in Karod. He cannot imagine his life without his Dede, this infinitely kind man who shaped his childhood and youth, nurtured his artistic talent (for Dede had a talent of his own: he never stopped drawing), and protected him along with his Aunty Fatma from the bitterness and aggression of Orhan’s father Mustafa, not received into the family business because he had no aptitude for it.
As Orhan journeys to Karod for his Dede’s funeral and the reading of the will, it is plain ‘that time and progress are two long-lost relatives who send an occasional letter’; Istanbul and remote Anatolia are night and day, and always will be. And so is Dede’s will. The predictable: Orhan inherits the family business, to his relief and his father’s rage – and the shock of a past time of which everyone has been ignorant: the house and grounds are bequeathed to a Ms Seda Melkonian, an aged Armenian resident of a rest home in California.
Who is this woman? What was she to Kemal? Orhan journeys to California for answers, and her signature on documents releasing the house to his father and Aunty Fatma – it is unthinkable that they be made homeless by a stranger living on the other side of the world. But the story his visit uncovers is so shocking and heartbreaking that it can’t be true – can it?
For Seda, who has resolutely refused to remember or acknowledge the past for most of her life, finds in Orhan’s visit the catharsis she needs to unburden herself of all her secrets, including those of which she is most ashamed. The world will never be the same again for either of them.
In beautiful prose, Ms Ohanisian recounts Seda’s life in a series of flashbacks, from her privileged girlhood in the very same house left to her by Kemal, to the beginnings of the horror; the ‘Knock on the Door’, and the forced march of the multitudes into the Syrian Desert - and eventually the place where her days will end: the Californian rest home. It is now Orhan’s choice to hide or expose what he has learnt, and this won’t be easy. He understand secrets, for he has many of his own.
Ms Ohanisian’s stunning imagery and beautiful word-pictures show us how privileged are we to experience this journey with her. FIVE STARS.
The Glassblower, by Petra Durst-Benning
Ms Durst-Benning completed this first novel in her trilogy in 2003; unfortunately for English readers, it was not translated from the German until 2014 – but better late than never. Now we can all enjoy her lovely story of the Steinmann sisters, daughters of proud and protective widower Joost Steinmann, a respected glassblower in the small Thuringian village of Lauscha. In 1890, Lauscha is renowned throughout Germany as the international destination for exquisite glassware, and Lauscha is proud of its reputation for craftsmanship, and the artisans who reinforce the village’s good name.
Joost shelters his three daughters. Every young man who comes calling in the hope of getting to know his pretty girls better is shown the door: men are all up to no good – only after one thing! The girls despair of ever meeting suitors, but they are too busy to reflect on their lack of experience, for there is much work to be done in their father’s business – until one morning he fails to rise from his bed. Joost has closed his eyes for the last time, and to their horror, his sheltered, cosseted daughters are on their own. Who will look after them now? How will they earn any kind of living in a patriarchal society where a woman’s duty is clear: ‘kirche, küche, kinder’. The choices are few, but if a woman does have to earn her living she does so for slave wages in one of the few glassworks in the village. Those uppity Steinmann girls are no different from anyone else – they’ll have to lose their airs and graces and subsist, just as other widows and single women do!
Ms Durst-Benning easily captures the reader in the first chapters. Each daughter is different: haughty, beautiful eldest daughter Johanna, unaware of her business acumen until she is forced to employ all her intelligence to prevent the family from starving; middle daughter Ruth, equally pretty but convinced that the only way out of poverty is to make a good marriage – and then does the opposite; and Marie, the dreamy youngest girl, nascent artist and eventual self-taught glassblower, using her late father’s equipment so that she can realise in glass the beautiful baubles she creates on paper – all in secret, for a female working as a glassblower is unthinkable.
Late 19th century Europe is captured unforgettably in all its beauty, poverty, double standards and hypocrisy; Lauscha, that tiny village with the enormous reputation is riddled with hierarchies that refuse to accept change, and the Steinmann girls find that the way ahead is strewn with pitfalls – and I won’t find out what happens until Book Two ‘The American Lady,’ comes into the library. Ms Durst-Benning has given us a real page-turner, even though Samuel Willcocks’ translation favours the modern idiom perhaps more than it should. That minor quibble aside, I can’t fail to give this lovely, unashamedly romantic story FIVE STARS.