Originally published in Turkey in 1999 to wide acclaim, this screwball love story is Shafak’s third novel. (Her fifth, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, was published here in 2004.) Loosely organized around a neurotic obese woman and a feisty dwarf, it teems with parallel plots and digressions, freely leaping from modern apartment living in Istanbul to a 19th-century Turkish freak show and fur hunts in 17th-century Siberia. Shafak’s prose (ably translated by Freely) follows a humorous, idiosyncratic course, seizing on arresting visual details, such as “a house the color of salted green almonds” and dispensing oddly charming aphorisms: “Love is a corset.” (She adds: “In order to understand the value of this you have to be exceedingly fat.”) At one moment, a faceless newborn’s features are etched on by an anxious aunt; at another, a shipwrecked Russian sailor surprises a shaman in flagrante delicto with an oversized sable. The early parts of the novel can feel maddeningly unfocused for a book about the power of the stare. Later pages home in on an unexpected emotional trauma, and the atmosphere of fantastical levity clears to reveal an urgent, human pain. Shafak probes the many ironies of appearance and perception with entertaining and affecting results
The Gaze by Elif Shafak
‘I didn’t say anything. I didn’t return his smiles. I looked at him in the wide mirror in front of where I was sitting. He grew uncomfortable and avoided my eyes. I hate those who think fat people are stupid.’
An obese woman and her lover, a dwarf, are sick of being stared at wherever they go, and so decide to reverse roles. The man goes out wearing make up and the woman draws a moustache on her face. But while the woman wants to hide away from the world, the man meets the stares from passers-by head on, compiling his ‘Dictionary of Gazes’ to explore the boundaries between appearance and reality. Intertwined with the story of a bizarre freak-show organized in Istanbul in the 1880s, The Gaze considers the damage which can be inflicted by our simple desire to look at others.
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