Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Adventures of Misfit Defne Kaman: Water by Buket Uzuner, Translated by Clare Frost and Alexander Dawe

Source: Everest Yayinlari
The Adventures of Misfit Defne Kaman: Water
by Buket Uzuner
Translated by Clare Frost and Alexander Dawe (from Turkish)
Originally published 2012, English edition 2014
376 pages, feminist fantasy, mystery

A Mystery Unfolding...

The police Sergeant Ümit Kaman is just counting down the minutes until his vacation and a chance to escape from the summer heat of the city when a missing person report draws him into a strange world in which anything is possible. The journalist Defne Kaman has disappeared, seemingly into thin air - many people watched her step onto a ferry, but no one saw her step off! Her mother and sister reassure the Sergeant that she disappears like this all the time, but her charismatic grandmother seems worried. She also seems to know more about the Sergeant than she has any right to know... such as his 2-year-old heartbreak over being separated from the woman he loves...

The plot thickens when the missing journalist appears before the Sergeant in a crowded street, silent and soaking wet, and thrusts a piece of paper into his hands before vanishing again. The paper is covered with codes... codes that might match the couplets of an ancient piece of Proto-Turkish literature that the Sergeant's friend Secondhand Semahat adores.... And then there is the dolphin that's acting strangely, and Defne's grandmother's strange influence - it can't just be charisma, can it?

The Patriarchal-minded Protagonist and the Narrator That Won't Shut Up

This book is difficult to pin down and write about, or understand. Some aspects of the story and its message seemed clumsy to me. For example, at the beginning of the novel the Sergeant's thoughts seemed unnaturally anti-feminist. At least in the translation, his patriarchal thinking seemed forced and overdone, too much anti-female sentiment for someone who is in love, who has at least one very intelligent female friend, and who is otherwise relatively progressive (as indicated by his non-traditional wedding plans). Later in the novel, it sometimes seemed that the author was primarily writing a political treatise in the guise of a story, rather than a novel with political implications. There are parts in which the characters or the narrator become too preachy about certain social issues. I believe it would have been more effective to incorporate messages about those issues into the main body of the story rather than long passages of explanation.

Another thing that both annoyed and intrigued me was the interruption of the narrator into the story for no apparent reason. There are three or so short chapters in which the narrator interrupts the story to talk about itself, and the role it plays. This narrator, which assured us that it is not gendered, seems like it could be an interesting character if taken further; as is, it is simply annoying, especially when it interrupts the possibly tragic ending and leaves the main story as a cliffhanger. If this book is the first of a series, as it seems to be, I hope to see the narrator given a greater role.

Misunderstood Little Girls and Magic

Despite these confusing and/or boring sections, I found myself glued to this book, curious to find out what happens next. I am particularly drawn to stories about misunderstood young girls, so Defne's diary entries from when she was a little girl greatly appealed to me. I wondered how this diary could be related to her present disappearance.

The shamanism, or kamanism, that is the primary theme of the book introduces an element of magic and fantasy to what might otherwise be a fairly normal mystery novel. Despite its importance, the kamanism remains merely hinted at, with no definite proof that Defne did, in fact, turn into a dolphin or that her grandmother has any more powers than your average herbal healer. And yet mysterious things are happening, and there may not be any other way to explain them. Is there?

A Mysterious Secondhand Bookseller

The character of Secondhand Semahat was an unusual find, and my favorite in the novel. She was both relatable and mysterious, full of inner torment but outwardly calm. Her transformation back into a woman (symbolized by wearing a dress and being interested in shoes) does not compromise the importance of her intelligence, but rather emphasizes that she can be herself as a woman, rather than as some sort of asexual being. I would be interested to see what she does after this transformation. I also appreciated that Secondhand Semahat and the other female characters in this novel were almost all over the age of 35, much older than those you usually encounter in American books I have read.

Overall, I very much enjoyed my first Turkish novel. I look forward to reading more works by this author, Buket Uzuner, and I would be very excited to read a sequel if there is one planned.

Have you read any feminist fantasy novels? Leave a comment below to let us know what you thought of them.

Where I found it: Pandora Books, Istanbul, Turkey

Want to see more reviews of world literature? Subscribe to The Globally Curious's email list, follow me on Twitter, or like my facebook page!


  1. I just read a review in English of the sequel (written in Turkish) on The Turkish Literature Blog today and went looking to see if any other of her works had been translated into English and saw your review. Always so great to discover new literature from Turkey and especially by women. Hopefully the sequel will be translated soon.

    1. Hi Claire! It looks like the sequel will probably be available in English in the next year or two. But whether it will be available from any publisher besides this Turkish one... we'll have to see.