Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 242 pages; 2021.
I had heard plenty of great things about Tice Cin’s Keeping the House, but it didn’t really work for me. I just could not engage with the story, nor the characters.
The blurb claims it’s about three generations of a Turkish family living in North London who import into the UK heroin hidden in cabbages.
It features a cast of characters that is so vast it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. That’s despite the fact there’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book. (I read this on Kindle and, unlike a physical book, it’s next to impossible to flick back to the front to look up names as you’re reading, which ruins the experience.)
That narrative is broken up into dozens and dozens of chapters, most only a few pages long, and each is told from a different character’s point of view. No sooner did I come to understand that Ayla, for instance, was the mother, courageous enough to take the plunge in the illicit import business, than the chapter would end and a new perspective would be introduced from another character’s point of view. Right from the start, the storyline felt disjointed.
The time frames also jump backward and forward, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but I was struggling to keep track of all the characters so my poor overworked brain could not cope with the changes in chronology, too.
It began to feel like I was reading something that had been influenced by our busy online lives, flicking from one social media platform to another, following snippets of conversations and news from a myriad of sources, and yet, for me, this style and structure felt too chaotic to make sense.
Yet the characters are well-drawn (if occasionally difficult to distinguish from one another) and the scene-setting and insights into ex-pat Turkish culture are exemplary. The writing is lyrical, original, astute. There are sublime poems dotted throughout the text, too.
Some of the chapters, especially those with lots of dialogue, are arranged like theatre scripts, minus the directions but clearly outlining who says what, which are fun to read.
Ali: Funny. So we have three things we’re going to do. I send your gear to Jersey, the rest we’ll sell off to this Jamaican dealer I know – all very street level – and then I send leftovers to some posh houses near Muswell Hill or something. Full of university people. You don’t want everything going off to one place if you want this to be quiet.
Ali: Yes. Taking the stuff to Jersey is worth three times more. Little bags worth three thousand sell for seven thousand. Once you’ve gotten someone on board, the hundred miles there are no problems. There’s about a hundred users in the place, so police know when there’s stuff on the island. You can spook them with a boo, though. Their prisons are full of non-islanders.
Ayla: They can’t fit more than a hundred in one of their prisons?
Ali: Something like that.
There are lots of Turkish words and phrases, all translated in the text, too, which adds to the flavour of the novel. And there’s a dark brooding atmosphere that infuses the story, one that drips with an undercurrent of violence and often blatant misogyny.
Keeping the House is not exactly a “fun” read, but structurally the author is doing interesting experimental things and clearly has a lot of talent. It’s the kind of work you’d expect to see nominated for the Goldsmith’s Prize, for instance.
Maybe add it to your list if you’re looking for something challenging and different or if you know this part of north London well. For me, I think it might have been the case of the right book but the wrong time…