Review | Monday 30 July 2012
The Memory of Salt, by Alice Melike Ülgezer, is a rare work of fiction that engages with multiculturalism not just as an idea or principle, but as a total and inescapable experience of life.
One half of the story is the love affair between a young paediatrician from Melbourne, Mac, and a Turkish circus performer and musician, Ahmet. When the two meet in Afghanistan, Mac is completely taken by Ahmet’s wild, carefree approach to anything and everything, and goes with him, for better or for worse, to Istanbul to meet his family. The story that unfolds from there is extravagant and breathless.
The second half is the journey their child, Ali, takes many years later in order to discover where her father is from and, ultimately, who she is herself. Ali, who is largely the narrator, has been raised in Australia by Mac and only really knows stories – some charming, some horrifying – about her unstable, magnetic father. (So convincing and compelling is Ali’s voice that I couldn’t help wondering how much, if any, autobiography might have gone into making this novel – not that it matters.)
Shifting and cutting between different decades, continents, languages and cultures, Ülgezer’s narrative navigates the often treacherous waters of identity politics. The descriptions that she uses are visceral and physical, allowing the reader to occupy the multiple identities of her characters.
For Australian readers unfamiliar with Turkish culture, many passages of this novel will be filled with fascinating details about mysticism and Sufism (Ülgezer is completing a PhD on the Qadiri Dervishes of Kurdistan). The greatest strength of the book, however, is Ülgezer’s ability to creatively highlight and contrast two cultures, which, one suspects, she loves equally.
Will Heyward is a bookseller who works for Readings in Carlton and St Kilda. His writing as been published in The Weekend Australian, the Australian Book Review, and on the website of BOMB Magazine. He is a contributing editor of Higher Arc.