Book Review: ‘Songs My Mother Never Taught Me,’ by Selçuk Altun
I recently picked up Selçuk Altun’s Songs My Mother Never Taught Me from my local public library on a whim, and boy, was I disappointed.
There are a couple of things that I consider non-negotiable time-to-chuck-this-book-out-the-window qualities in novels. Allow me to entertain you with a small sample of what is becoming a very, very long list:
1. Excessively self-indulgent self-referential writing on the part of the author
2. Senseless violence against women and/or rampant misogyny and/or wooden, two-dimensional female characters
3. Stale dialogue
4. Thrillers that are freakin’ boring
Hot damn, did Altun hit every single one of these non-negotiables in Songs My Mother Never Taught Me. The plot revolves around the intertwined fates of a spoiled, wealthy Istanbullu with serious mommy issues and a self-described bibliophile proto-Islamist/killer for hire.
First things first, I hate the word bibliophile. It’s so pretentious (and I know pretentious—I went to the University of St Andrews).
Secondly, Altun himself is a minor character in the novel, describing himself as a famous novelist of excellent thriller novels. Uhm, excuse me? I know Orhan Pamuk slyly snuck himself into the last 15 or so pages of The Museum of Innocence, but that was a deft, borderline self-depreciating cameo. The writer in The Museum of Innocence was just a cog in the machine (albeit one that helped set up a perfect sentimental ending that made me blubber) who, you could argue, just happened to be named Orhan Pamuk. Not so in Altun’s novel. I rolled my eyes so hard I almost gave myself a migraine the eigth time he referred to himself as an “esteemed novelist”. Like, dude. You’re a banker, not the next Tolstoy. Give it up.
Next up: senseless violence against women. This is a deeply misogynistic little book. Female characters are either Madonnas or whores or straight up witches (as is the case of the rich man’s mother). They get raped and beaten left and right, are all two-dimensional accessories to the real plot. Which was….
…not all that interesting, actually. For a book that is marketed as a thriller written by a self-proclaimed writer of thrillers, this slim novel was decidedly non thrilling. I wish I could blame the utterly wooden dialogue and stale pacing on the two translators (who did not do a fantastic job—not everyone is as much of a wizard with Turkish as Maureen Freely, I guess), but I can’t. That’s all on you, Selçuk. The novel is slow to begin and never really gains much momentum as the rich boy pops Valium and the Islamist slaughters left and right in between reading Ottoman texts.
TL;DR, if you want a twisty tale set in a moody, atmospheric Istanbul in which genre novels (mysteries/thrillers) play a key role, read Pamuk’s The Black Book and forget this guy.
Also, last thing: uh, guys—did anyone else believe that an Islamist, part-time assassin, part-time used book seller who sucks at math would therefore assassinate a prominent professor of math?
Not even I find that believable, and I counted on my fingers in a job interview this morning.
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