By Alev Lytle Croutier
Atria Books. 306 pp. $24
"Seven Houses," the saga of four generations of a Turkish silk-making family, is at times a lush, rich read, a satisfying weave of storytelling that begins as the Ottoman Empire is ending and spans eight decades. The family, which chooses the surname Ipekci, Turkish for "silk maker," suffers through the Allied occupation after World War I, the Greek invasion of Smyrna (now Izmir) and the Turkish war of independence but eventually prospers with a silk plantation of great renown in the hills above Bursa.
The silk provides. The family grows. There are summer houses, city houses, all manner of servants, public respect and, above all, a degree of happiness across the generations. Then a mysterious fire destroys the plantation and kills the patriarch, the ipekci. What remains passes into the hands of his nephew, who lacks business sense, rather than to the women of the family, whose feel for silk might well have rescued the family's standing. The houses are sold as the fortune drains away, until all that remains is the sum needed to build a small apartment building into which the extended clan is disbursed, one nuclear family per modern apartment. The communal bath, the hamam, gives way to the privacy and loneliness of modern convenience. For the women, there is the excitement of washing machines and linoleum. But their charmed lives are over. The next generation is "scattered all over the world under different names."
For readers familiar with Turkey, the detail of "Seven Houses" is satisfying. Alev Lytle Croutier richly evokes the domestic space inhabited by the Ipekci women and their female servants, whose experiences largely define the saga. She conjures the languid ease with which they gather in the hamam to scrub and socialize, and the rich detail of the kitchen, where there are tahini and grape leaves, phyllo and borek, warm fermented millet (boza), the winter drink made of orchid root (salep), the elaborate parade of sweets.
Croutier, a Turk now living in San Francisco and Paris, also succeeds with her Garcia Marquez-like evocations of an otherworldly connection. The women of the earlier generations operate on instinct and signs from the natural world. Spells are cast, prayers said to Allah and to the goddesses who preceded him in Anatolia. Candles are lit to the likes of Aesculapius, "the heathen healing god." An owl totem calls out danger. Portentously, a moth is arrested in the midst of metamorphosis and frozen in amber. A maidservant reads spider webs and senses the children's dreams. Esma, the distraught young widow at the heart of the novel, cries tear-shaped diamonds and weaves prayer rugs that open doorways into imaginary worlds. Hers is a world of kismet, a Turkish word, after all -- a world lived in houses suffused with memory. In the back garden of her house in Smyrna stands a myrrh tree with a split trunk from which Adonis was born.
It is the seven houses of the title -- the villas, flats and cottages in which the family dwells according to the vagaries of fate and fortune -- that narrate the novel. The technique is mostly unobtrusive. Less so is the author's occasional heavy-handedness with pop culture and historical figures, who pop up often enough to give the novel a "Zelig"-like feel. Isabel Allende, in a cover blurb, praises Croutier for "braiding history and fiction in an intricate pattern." But it is less intricate pattern than puzzling overlay. And unlike Allende's "House of the Spirits," another family saga with otherworldly overtones spanning four generations, Croutier's second novel at times suffers as a result.
For example, Aida, the teenage beauty queen of the Ipekci family, catches the eye of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, who is mesmerized in part by what lies at her cleavage: a birthmark in the shape of the star and crescent of the Turkish flag. The reader might forgive a sloppy tattoo, but a birthmark?
Aida's niece, Amber, has the same knack for achieving her 15 minutes of fame. As a child, she knows a boy who amuses himself by stacking jars in his bedroom. Amber spies his pyramid of refuse, and it is a scene she would remember "as she piled up Campbell's soup cans at Warhol's studio many years later." It is a throwaway line, and although Amber is to spend 25 years in America, there is no further explanation as to how or why she might have found herself in Warhol's orbit. When Amber returns to Turkey, it is to this offhand comment from Camilla, her mother: "And then there's your classmate Tansu, the corrupt prime minister," an apparent reference to former prime minister Tansu Ciller. "What a bad egg she turned out to be."
In places, the novel has the feel of one translated into English -- with sometimes comic results. In the instant after birth, a newborn is silent, and then the "chord" is cut. In other places, the reader without any Turkish will wish for a bit more English translation. A further possible point of confusion: The final chapters are labeled 1997, but one wonders, what with all the references to martial law and curfews, whether an earlier date was intended.
Ultimately, Croutier's sensuous writing isn't quite sufficient to overcome an unraveling of the weave. "Seven Houses" is alluring but disappointing, like an imitation that looks like silk, but only from a distance.