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‘Tarmac and tidiness’ [book review]

52 Factory Lane by Selim Özdoğan, translated by Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu

Ever since I reached the final full stop of The Blacksmith’s Daughter, Turkish-German author Selim Özdoğan’s hauntingly beautiful tale of life in an Anatolian village, I have been looking forward to finding out how the story continues. Fortunately, as the Anatolian Blues trilogy already exists in German, it was simply a matter of waiting for V&Q Books, Özdoğan’s English-language publisher, to catch up – something co-translators Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu have achieved with remarkable alacrity, bringing us 52 Factory Lane, the second instalment of the trilogy, just a year after its predecessor. In it, we encounter Gül, the blacksmith’s daughter whose childhood we followed in the first volume, as she moves to Germany, leaving her own daughters behind to follow her husband, Fuat, and their dreams of one day creating a better life.

As it turns out, Fuat’s and Gül’s dreams will take on quite different shapes, but to go into this in any great detail would be to spoil the gentle ebb and flow of this quietly captivating novel. As in The Blacksmith’s Daughter, Özdoğan writes with great skill of the simple everyday: moments that may not seem to hold much significance in the present, but which accumulate over many years to shape the people who live them. While Gül, Fuat and their daughters, Ceren and Ceyda, do experience major milestones – marriages, births, deaths, new jobs and houses, international moves – it is in the low-key scenes where Özdoğan really excels as a novelist. A conversation between colleagues, a neighbourly gesture, a long night-time drive, weekend afternoons spent watching TV as a family – all these are not just beautifully observed, but often heavy with implication, built just as much around the words Özdoğan has chosen not to bring to the page.

Conversation, both present and lacking, is important in 52 Factory Lane, a novel about loss, disappointment and tamped-down emotions, as well as immense inner strength, hope and acts of everyday courage. Words, even in their absence, shape the world as we see it: when Gül speaks to people back home about her new life, it is the elements she leaves out, ‘the hours spent in the kitchen and the many tears she’s cried’ that are most important, but whose omission leaves her interlocutors with their preferred image of Germany as a place of ‘tarmac and tidiness’. Spoken words, on the other hand, are vital to Özdoğan’s character-building technique: with his colourful language and forthright ways, Fuat is a perfect example of this, becoming if not exactly likeable, then a vivid and entirely believable man.

Great credit is due to Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu for carrying this sense of voice so well throughout a translation that they chose to divide – as they explain in their concluding note – into alternating sections of just three or four pages each. As such, they seem to have developed a shared style unique to this trilogy, which extends beyond honing individual characters’ modes of expression to the overall tenor of the book: melancholic and ridden with nostalgia both for life as it was and, somehow, the life that is yet to come. At times, Özdoğan does come close to over-egging this aspect, ending many sections with a cryptic glance into his characters’ future – ‘Gül senses that the path is wide open to her. Her feeling will prove right, but no one can guess how a common path might fork again. No one can see the pain of the future’ – as though exhorting us to keep reading. It is not for plot or mystery that we are here, however; the pleasure of reading a well-crafted narrative, of spending time with characters we care about should be enough.

Still, the melancholic, bluesy tone is what made The Blacksmith’s Daughter so captivating, and again it carries 52 Factory Lane – particularly vital in this novel, which Özdoğan has chosen to construct almost as a series of vignettes. Though there is a chronological narrative underpinning them, and some episodes are longer than others, most scenes have a crystalline quality, as distinct from their neighbours as though the narrator has gone through a family album, picking out photos and describing the circumstances surrounding each one. As a result, we not only cover a lot of ground in the course of 250 pages, but are also reminded constantly of our unsettling position as outsiders looking in – something that seems to mirror Gül’s sense of displacement in both Germany and Turkey. In neither country does reality conform to what she had imagined; in both places she finds her new existence precarious, leaving her tethered to a strong community yet floating somewhere just above it.

For though Özdoğan’s trilogy is about vividly portrayed individuals, it is also about the collective: the political and social commentary that runs beneath the surface of his novels does much to describe the situation of the Turkish diaspora, a large and significant part of life in Germany that deserves far greater exploration in literature. Just as the title suggests, 52 Factory Lane is not just about one family and their home, but about a whole street – one that sees tears and tirades, moments of joy and despair, a place that will never be what Gül had imagined and yet becomes more home than ‘home’ to her, a community that ‘floats on air on New Year’s Eve’. Factory Lane is a bittersweet setting for a novel that finds its success in being quiet rather than showy, in contemplating dreams and disappointments, displacement and homecoming, in bringing its characters alive on the page and telling its own small, but significant, truth.

52 Factory Lane by Selim Özdoğan, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu, is published in paperback by V&Q Books. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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