Alice Melike Ulgezer’s debut novel, The Memory of Salt, is organic, human, and above all, authentic.
The story is about Ali and her Turkish father (Baba/Ahmet) and Australian mother (Mac). Baba’s life is ruled by mental illness and religion. Mac’s life is ruled by Baba. The narrative isn’t chronological, as we follow Ali’s process from confusion and anger, to understanding and forgiveness. As the narrative shifts about in time, so do those emotions. Life isn’t chronological or one-way like a book, and the structure of The Memory of Salt highlights this beautifully.
When I say that the book is authentic, I say this from a place of knowing practically nothing of Istanbul. Ulgezer really beautifully paints the Middle East as a place of mysticism and tradition, and she has done it so well that whenever I think of that part of the world, I will now think of Ulgezer’s version. (I had a similar reaction to the Bali in Ruby J. Murray’s Running Dogs. Melbourne’s got some damn talented women!)
While I knew next to nothing of the Middle East before this book, I know a fair bit about mental illnesses and the strange (not all bad) things it can do to a family. The relationships that exist between Ali, Baba and Mac are spot-on. They’re truthful and they contain all the anger and unlikely generosity that’s required in that kind of situation. Baba is an infuriating character, but as we shift about in time, learning about the beginning of Baba and Mac’s relationship, its demise, Ali’s childhood and eventual return to Istanbul, we come to love him despite his worse qualities. We aren’t just told that Baba is charming – we are actively charmed.
Ulgezer’s prose is a very particular kind of writing. To be honest, it took me a while to get into it – at first it seemed flowery, and intentionally alienating in the way it’s peppered with foreign words, often without translations. However, once I’d gotten into the rhythm of the writing, it became part of what makes the work so distinctive. And by the end of the text, I’d pick up a few words of Turkish. It’s similar to the kind of gear-shift your brain does to read Jane Austen. At first all the clauses are confusing and seem verbose, but when you’re in gear you get entirely sucked into that world, and it’s great fun.
The book’s layout is organic, with no chapters and only page breaks indicating a shift in time or place. For the story, this works well, totally immersing the reader in the world of the novel. However, for the reader who reads fitfully like me, this can be disruptive. There’s no clean place to put the book down, and it really requires a few long sittings to be read properly. Don’t let this stop you, because it’s a rewarding read (in terms of ripping your freakin’ heart out, in the best way possible), but it does do best when you’ve got the time and space to dedicate to it.
Just a side-note on the physical book: it’s beautiful. As with all books from Giramondo (publishing company), the production values are really high. It’s a little wider than a regular format, the type is well-spaced on the page, and there are perfect margins to stop you from cracking the spine. The fact that it feels so good to hold means it’s easy to not put it down.
As a reader, you need to invest a lot in The Memory of Salt, getting into the rhythm of the prose, spending long periods of time with the text. This pays off though – Ulgezer’s knack with both place and human relationships is well worth the effort.
**A note added later: I just read a Q&A on Readings’ website with Alice Melike Ulgezer, and she talks about how Ali’s gender is never revealed. Isn’t that strange, how I took Ali to be female? Is this because I am female? How did I not notice this? Gosh.