fiction, review

The Turk and My Mother

Indonesian edition's cover (source:
Indonesian edition’s cover (source:

The Turk and My Mother by Mary Helen Stefaniak didn’t only satisfy my hunger for a great work of contemporary Western literature, but also my thirst for a beautifully history-interlaced modern story. I always adore historical fiction, and though it doesn’t particularly fall into that genre, The Turk and My Mother is still capable of presenting an aspect of history in a way that is going well with modern-day America which serves as the background of more than half of the narrative. It’s a complicated story of love, family, and deeply buried secrets which is guaranteed to make the reader itch to scratch around just to unearth the true answer, with a blanket of gloomily hilarious atmosphere adding to its curious nature.

The story begins as Georgie tells Mary Helen, from his own point of view, why his mother Agnes punished his older sister Madeline back when he was a kid for illegitimately getting pregnant. According to his grandmother’s hushed confession, Agnes’ severe decision has something to do with her own secret feelings and complicated relationship with a mysterious Turk named Tas Akbulut. It’s 1918 and the World War I looms over the Europe, half of which involve in it with half a heart. Georgie’s family is originally Austro-Hungarian and lives in a small, isolated village called Novo Selo, and before Georgie is even a twinkle in his father’s eyes, the older man leaves for America in search of a better life to share with his whole family. But after years Josef never comes back, leaving a false hope and a room open in their house, and in Agnes’ life, too.

In his absence, comes the mysterious Turk no one ever knows who he actually is and where he exactly comes from. The head of their village decides to put Akbulut in Agnes’ house, because they are the only household having a spare room. So it’s just a matter of time before love sparks in the hearts of the abandoned wife and the lonely, wandering unknown man. Unfortunately, by the time that treacherous feeling is revealed and admitted, Agnes has to follow her husband to America with her family. But if you think Akbulut would let it go at that and do nothing about it, you’re wrong. He gets on board and catches up with her. Only the intricacy of the story doesn’t stop there, for Josef proves not to be faithful to his marriage, either. And the result of his secret affair, needless to say, complicates the already confusing state of the newly migrated family.

The Turk and My Mother has numerous characters with flaws and secrets of their own. Stefaniak cleverly describes all of them through their deeds and behaviors, and then weaves them together with the situation they are in to complicate the presentation of their portrayals. Almost everyone in this book seems to be described as tactless and reckless, hopelessly falling prey to a possible situation. At least, that’s what I see in the character of Agnes, Josef, Tas Akbulut, and even in the glimpse of the character of Marko. I wouldn’t say that the situation is what entirely shapes them, for they seem to take a full advantage of it to secretly rebel against everything that rein them back: their family, their parents, their commitment. But I wouldn’t overlook the fact that the situation leads them to the doings they regret later, either. So each of the character is a paradox, where Stefaniak serves the reader with a concoction of human nature and the power of the universe to show that they’re guilty and innocent at the same time.

Though split up into three separate parts, The Turk and My Mother is written without following a certain, regular pattern. Each part is told from various perspectives and doesn’t have a straight storyline, jumping, twisting and turning. It is thus quite hard to devour the narrative, not to mention the conflict embedded inside it. Stefaniak makes it like a bunch of random memories scattered along the book and told in a way that looks as if they are recollected with so much difficulty. However, her unique style of storytelling is actually very much appealing, forcing the reader to stay put and follow the story to the end. The bitterness she narrates in a hilarious way also manages to get the reader absorbed into the story without feeling blue. The characters are interesting as well, developed through the words of other characters, making them a bit unbelievable yet intriguingly look real, too. What attracts me to them, other than their somewhat complex characterizations, is the fact that they are actually the representatives of early American inhabitants who shaped America into what it is today. Their original races with all the characteristics, their cultural backgrounds, their languages and difficulties in speaking English, even their religions and/or beliefs all contributed to the vast melting pot of American society. Stefaniak takes notice of that very fact and puts it in the book with such a natural description.

At the end, I would say that The Turk and My Mother is such a marvelous family saga. It proves that it doesn’t take a long plot for a story to be beautifully intricate, and that it only takes a few words to describe very complicated characters. It’s a genius form of a narrative, which is written carefully and skilfully.

Rating: 4/5

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