cover image The Red-Haired Woman

The Red-Haired Woman

Orhan Pamuk, trans. from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap. Knopf, $27.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-451-49442-9

Cem was a teenager when, in the mid-1980s, his father left him and his mother and the pharmacy that had supported their family in the Besiktas neighborhood of Istanbul. He soon takes work as an apprentice to a well digger, Master Mahut, and the two are hired to find water on a large, empty plot of land on the outskirts of the city. Master Mahut “knew himself to be among the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years. So he approached his work with humility.” Over the course of a slow, hot summer—the events of which will haunt Cem forever—that work and that humility create the tension, the boredom, and the bond between the older man and the younger one. Cem catches the eye of an older, red-headed woman in town, and the image of her consumes him. Meanwhile, building a windlass and burrowing deeper into the earth, Cem and Master Mahut swap stories. Cem previously worked in a bookstore, which fueled his reveries about one day becoming a writer and introduced him to seminal stories of fathers and sons, like those of Oedipus, Rostam and Sohrab, and Hamlet. While Cem’s consideration of these stories initially drives the novel, by the end of the book, the contemplation of fatherly themes feels heavy-handed and the story devolves into predictable, almost melodramatic myth. Pamuk’s power continues to lie not with the theatrical but with the quiet and the slow. (Aug.)