The longest book I read last year was Sarah J Maas’ Empire of Storms, at 693 pages. Outside of young adult fiction – which I’ll always advocate for, but is an easier read for me – the longest was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life at 622 pages. A Strangeness in My Mind is then the longest book I’ve read in several years, being 734 pages.
I haven’t read a huge number of books I’d call ‘long’ in the past couple of years, but a large proportion of the ones I do read have been on my favourites lists. Perhaps because of the commitment reading them feels like, I don’t often pick up anything much over about 400 pages. In January, I struggled to settle into anything – I didn’t finish a book until the 19th, and that was a reread. I did start this book before that, but this took longer. It might seem odd to go for a mammoth when unable to settle to something, but what I think I needed was something substantial. This precisely fitted what I needed.
A Strangeness in My Mind follows Mevlut from the age of twelve, when he leaves his village to live and work with his father in Istanbul, learning the city as a street vendor of yogurt and boza. At a family wedding in hid twenties, he meets eyes with a beautiful girl, and for three years writes her letters before his cousin helps them elope. But once they’re at the point of no return, he catches a glimpse of her, and realises this is not the girl he saw years ago. His life will be defined by the ambiguity of this – his writing to one girl and marrying another. The novel follows Mevlut through his life into his mid fifties.
What really struck me when I started reading, and got me excited about the book, was the directness the narrator uses – while mostly this is standard 3rd person narration, there are occasional bursts where the presence of the reader is acknowledged. While I was enjoying the book immensely already, the below quote from the first chapter was the moment my attention was really caught, – the moment I got that tingly feeling of something new:
This boyishness, which Mevlut carried well into his forties, and its effect on women were two of his essential features, and it will be worth my reminding readers of them now and again to help to explain some aspects of the story. As for Mevlut’s optimism and goodwill – which some would call naïveté – of these, there will be no need for reminding, as they will be clear to see throughout. Had my readers actually met Mevlut, as I have, they would agree with the women who found him boyishly handsome and know that I am not exaggerating for effect.
The speaker telling the story is never identified within the book, but from these moments is nevertheless characterised in their tone, and in their fondness for the central character, which is infectious.
As well as this direct speaking to the reader, the book uses both third and first person. All sections which in an exclusively first-person account would be Mevlut’s are in third person, while other characters occasionally interrupt the narrator to give their own perspective on certain events, times and things of which Mevlut was unaware. I loved this approach and the effect it has on the story, building up not only a complex and varied story which takes in multiple perspectives, but encourages us not to take any single character’s word completely at face value, as emphasised by the first ‘interruption’, in which Mevlut’s cousin Süleyman corrects the reader on his treatment by the village dogs.
All of these points of view also contribute to what I really loved about the book, which is the amount of detail I felt submerged in – about the characters and their motivations, they daily lives, the feel of different parts of the city, the noise and smell and atmosphere.
The drama which the story covers is the drama of ordinary lives – and yet, unusual lives. The character is defined by who he is, where he is from and where he goes, what he does, and the political climates he experiences. The story is brilliantly inextricable from the when and the where in which it takes place.
The only thing about this book which I didn’t adore was the pacing – occasionally the amount of detail in a certain section meant I fell out of the story. About three quarters of the way through, I was losing steam – but pushing through about ten pages was all I had to do. I think 1.3% of the book being a little dull – and only to me personally – is hardly a criticism.
I really fell in love with this story – with the characters and their motivations, with the thoughtfulness of the prose, the meandering pace which mimics Mevlut’s walking through the city selling boza. The structure of introducing a scene from the chronological middle at the start of the book and a well-placed sentence or two, which foreshadow major events to come but leave the details to be discovered, create one of those stories I think only come in lengthy tomes – the complex, many layered, deceptively simple stories about people being themselves. I fell in love with all of this, and can’t wait to read more by the author – and I unreservedly recommend you go out and meet Mevlut, boza seller.