#BookReview At the Breakfast Table by Defne Suman, trans. by Betsy Goeksel

At the Breakfast TableAbout the Book

Buyukada, Turkey, 2017. In the glow of a late summer morning, family gather for the 100th birthday of the famous artist Shirin Saka. It ought to be a time of fond reminiscence, looking back on a long and fruitful artistic career, on memories spanning almost a century. But the deep past is something Shirin has spent a lifetime trying to conceal.

Her grandchildren, Nur and Fikret, and great-grandchild, Celine, do not know what she’s hiding, though they are intimately aware of the secret’s psychological consequences. The siblings invite family friend and investigative journalist Burak along to interview Shirin – in celebration of her centenary, and also in the hope of persuading her to open up.

Eventually Shirin begins to express her pain the only way she knows how. She paints a story onto her dining room wall, revealing a history wiped from public consciousness and generations of her family’s history.

Format: Hardback (416 pages)             Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 1st September 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literature in Translation

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At the Breakfast TableMy Review

As with her previous book, The Silence of Scheherazade (which is still on my Kindle waiting to be read), the location of At the Breakfast Table is the author’s native Turkey.  Although set in the present day it involves events dating back to the 1920s.

The story is told from four different points of view: journalist, Burak; Shirin Saka’s grandchild, Nur; Celine, Nur’s niece; and Sadik Usta, Shirin Saka’s faithful servant and companion. Although the unfolding of Shirin Saka’s story forms a key element of the book, we never hear from her directly but through the narratives of others. The same is (largely) true of Suheyla, Nur’s dead mother. I confess it took me a little time to get the family relationships straight in my head partly because, although the book does contain a family tree, this wasn’t included in my digital copy. (I was also confused by Shirin Saka sometimes being referred to as Shirin Hanim until I got to the glossary at the end of the book and learned Hanim means Mrs.)

The author creates distinctive narrative voices for each of the four characters. Celine is all breathless excitement at the prospect of discovering her great-grandmother’s story, although she felt rather immature for the age she is supposed to be. Burak is more matter of fact and thoughtful but exudes a real sense of melancholy, mainly because of his complicated relationship with Nur. Sadik Usta tells his story in a restrained way, often referring to himself as ‘I, your humble servant’. His protectiveness towards Shirin Saka (which extends to a reluctance to delve into the past) and his quiet devotion to her, and the family in general, made him my favourite character.  Nur was a character I really struggled with. I found her self-obsessed and her treatment of Burak, toying with his affections when it suited her and discarding him at other times, difficult to forgive.

There is a lot of moving back and forth in time, with present day events being described alongside memories of (sometimes quite incidental) past events and the transition between the two not always entirely clear. This is especially the case in the sections told from the point of view of Nur and Burak. One minute they’ve just met, then they’ve broken up because Nur has married someone else, then they’re back in the early days of their relationship.

Between the four different narrators – and through the art made by Shirin Saka – we gradually learn about the early lives of Shirin Saka and Sadik Usta, and the source of their unique bond. It also provides a lesson in a period of Turkish history about which I knew very little and during which shocking events took place. Many of these, sadly, are echoed in events taking place in the world today: cultural and religious persecution, forced migration, extreme nationalism. Look, for instance, at what is taking place with the Uyghurs in China.

At the Breakfast Table is an interesting story of family relationships and exploration of the concept of intergenerational trauma. I also enjoyed the insight into Turkish culture (especially its cuisine) and history. However, the disjointed way in which the story was told and its slow pace meant it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

I received a digital review copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

In three words: Immersive, intense, affecting

Try something similar: Island of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

Defne SumanAbout the Author

Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Prinkipo Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University and then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos, where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon, USA and now lives in Athens with her husband. The Silence of Scheherazade, first published in Turkey and Greece in 2016, was her English language debut.

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#BookReview Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Death and the PenguinAbout the Book

Viktor is an aspiring writer with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life. But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly turns to terror. He and Misha have been drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape

Format: Hardback (240 pages )     Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: 28th April 2022 Genre: Contemporay Fiction, Literature in Translation

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My Review

Death and the Penguin was the May selection for the book club run by Waterstones in Reading. Although the book is available in paperback, most of us chose to purchase Waterstones’ special edition containing a new introduction by the author and with £10 from each copy sold being donated to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

First published in 1996, Death and the Penguin has been described as ‘a chilling black comedy’ and there are definitely moments of surreal humour; Misha the penguin’s funeral attendances spring to mind.  And anyway how often do you come across someone who has a penguin for a pet, especially when that person lives in an apartment? However it does show that, although solitary by nature and with a history of keeping other people at arm’s length, Viktor can show affection. Touchingly when Misha falls ill, Viktor seeks out a penguinologist (who knew there was such a thing) to advise him on what to do and, as a result, enters into an agreement that will have quite incendiary results.

Through a series of chance events and quite without knowing how it happened, Viktor acquires what he regards as the requisites of a ‘normal’ life: wife, child, pet penguin. Set largely in the city which we now know to call Kyiv, there are occasional glimpses of Ukranian lifestyle such as when Viktor travels to a friend’s dacha for New Year celebrations.

Though he doesn’t comprehend it for a long time, Viktor has become entangled in what turns out to be a web of corruption run by some very shady individuals. When he finally puts two and two together, he realises he knows too much. ‘This isn’t a film, it’s for real.’  But has that realisation come too late?

Although all the book club members enjoyed the whimsical nature of the book, we were left with the feeling that we’d missed something and that perhaps you had to be Ukrainian to really appreciate the satirical element of the book.

In three words: Quirky, playful, charming

Try something similar: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

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Andrey KurkovAbout the Author

Andrey Kurkov was born in St Petersburg in 1961. Having graduated from the Kyiv Foreign Languages Institute, he worked for some time as a journalist, did his military service as a prison warder in Odessa, then became a writer of screenplays and author of critically acclaimed and popular novels, including the bestselling Death and the Penguin which was first published in 1996.

Kurkov has long been a respected commentator on Ukraine for the world’s media, notably in the UK, France, Germany and the United States.