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Tice Cin’s ‘Keeping the House’ is a family drama with a side of suspense

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Look back at the memories that stand out from your childhood, and there’s a good chance the most prominent involve food, both good and bad. A spectacular hole-in-the-wall, or an eatery that was unprecedented in its awfulness, could be sources of dinner-table anecdotes for years to come. If you’re lucky, you grew up in a family with good cooks and enough food to provide a sense of security. Or perhaps certain foods call to mind moments of hardship, the low-quality fare that was the best you could afford.

All of which is to say that food is a complicated business. That’s one of the truisms that comes to mind when reading “Keeping the House,” the heartfelt debut novel from Tice Cin, a writer from North London of Turkish ancestry. Food and its importance to one family are at the heart of this book, which follows three generations of Cypriot women in a nonlinear narrative that stretches from 1999 to 2012.

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The first chapter introduces 8-year-old Damla, who in 1999 is living with her mother, Ayla, and her brother and sister in a housing estate in London’s Tottenham section. It’s a short chapter, only two pages, but already Cin shows that the book will vacillate between the calm familiarity of domestic affairs and a more portentous eeriness that infiltrates the proceedings. This is nicely demonstrated in a sequence in which Ayla teaches Damla how to properly cook a chicken: “She sliced greasy, hairy skin from the half-roasted carcass and chucked it in the bin, never dirtying her nails.”

It’s an arresting opening, told, as is much of the book, in a brief, punchy chapter. Immediately, the story jumps forward to 2006, when readers meet Cemile, Damla’s sexually precocious classmate who likes to flirt. Cemile turns out to be a well-drawn character, but the jump is jarring, primarily because the rapid jolt from 8-year-old Damla’s family life to 15-year-old Damla’s relationship with a school friend omits meaningful details about the inevitable transition over the intervening seven years. Perhaps Cin felt that the obliqueness would create tension, but it mainly disorients the reader. And it is the first of many abrupt transitions in a novel that continually moves on before bringing scenes to a satisfying conclusion.

Even so, Cin has a gift for evocative writing, as when she writes that Damla, at 15, is mastering the dishes her mother taught her, meals “that slid oil into you, that kept you full when you wanted to eat more but couldn’t.”

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Ultimately, “Keeping the House” turns into a family saga, coming-of-age story and thriller rolled into one. The book’s most dramatic plot line takes place in the late 1990s, when Ayla, an expert gardener, hatches a plan to smuggle drugs into England from Turkey through a unique variation on stuffed cabbage: The recipe involves growing the leaves of the Turkish lapsana around bags of heroin before transporting them across borders.

The passages involving this scheme are among the book’s best. Among the triumvirate of men Ayla recruits to perform the task, in the hope of sharing the profits with them and with her incarcerated boyfriend, are Ufuk, who gave himself a mermaid tattoo when he was 8, and Mehmet, who is inordinately fond of admiring his wingtips. The descriptions in these sections are precise and vivid, qualities that are sometimes missing in other parts of the book.

Equally moving are scenes involving Ayla’s mother, especially in moments that describe the early death of her husband and the late-life health struggles that add urgency to Ayla’s smuggling operation.

“Keeping the House” is, in many ways, the quintessential first work of fiction: ambitious yet uneven, with flashes that demonstrate the author’s considerable potential. The novel serves up a buffet of genres but never coheres into a satisfying whole.

Yet the novel provides ample evidence of a talented author with good works ahead of her, from magnificent character details to vivid descriptions of the world these characters inhabit, among them Ayla sweeping sun-crisped cabbage leaves “until my broom had a dead snail crunched into its straw.” With talent like that, Cin will undoubtedly produce future novels that make readers feel like those lucky family members who grew up around good cooks. As any chef will tell you, it’s all about technique.

Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Economist and Times Literary Supplement.

Keeping the House

By Tice Cin

And Other Stories. 216 pp. $17.95

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