The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk, Review: Insightful

Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel The Red-Haired Woman — a beguiling mystery tale of family and romance, of east and west, tradition and modernity, by one of the great storytellers of our time.

The Red Haired Woman Review, Orhan PamukThe Red-Haired Woman Synopsis

From the Nobel Prize winner and best-selling author Orhan Pamuk is The Red-Haired Woman, a fable of fathers and sons and the desires that come between them.

On the outskirts of a town thirty miles from Istanbul, a master well digger and his young apprentice are hired to find water on a barren plain. As they struggle in the summer heat, excavating without luck, the two develop a filial bond neither has known before – not the poor middle-aged bachelor nor the middle-class boy whose father disappeared after being arrested for politically subversive activities.

The pair come to depend on each other and exchange stories reflecting disparate views of the world. But in the nearby town, where they buy provisions and take their evening break, the boy finds an irresistible diversion: The Red-Haired Woman, an alluring member of a travelling theatre company. She catches his eye and seems as fascinated by him as he is by her. When the young man’s wildest dream is realised, in his distraction a horrible accident befalls the well digger and the boy flees, returning to Istanbul.

Only years later will he discover whether he was in fact responsible for his master’s death and who the redheaded enchantress was.

Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap

(Penguin Books)

Genre: Literature, Historical, Drama, Translation

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Although The Red-Haired Woman is the first of Orhan Pamuk’s works that I have read, high praise of his earlier titles meant my expectations were high. Apparently, this was his shortest novel to date, so I anticipated a certain literary potency.

What struck me from the outset was the dreamlike yet, at times, untethered quality of the narrative… Pamuk’s reputed enviable talent for setting a scene, a feeling, a mood.

The Red Haired Woman Quote, Orhan Pamuk

The Red-Haired Woman is divided into three parts – three different narrative windows. In Part 1 the transitions felt a little choppy.  I was intrigued but unsure whether this was intended to reflect the capriciousness of youth (and make the reader feel ill at ease) or a result of subtlety and nuance being lost in translation. However, my confidence in the narrative voice certainly grew in this novel’s latter stages.

What was never unclear was Pamuk’s intention to explore the different relationships between a father and son, the broader consequences of these and to draw parallels with the political struggles of his homeland. With repeated references to the Oedipal myth from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (Greece) and the legend of Rostam and Sohrab from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Persia) he explores the delicate balance between nurture and oppression — familial and West versus East religious and geopolitical tensions.

Weighty symbolism

Pamuk’s layered use of symbolism is weighty and foreboding, evoking the lack of control undoubtedly felt by those living in highly authoritarian societies. I do however think the author provided far greater explanation of the symbolic references than was necessary, weakening reader engagement in places.

Without giving too much away though, I found much of this novel’s strength and literary merit in its conclusion. In The Red-Haired Woman Orhan Pamuk gives readers a very human insight into Turkey’s recent history and much to ponder.

* I must also mention how beautiful, and fitting, the cover art of this Penguin edition is.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5 — Overall 3.5

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Related Reads:
A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois  /  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra  /  People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks  /  The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht  /  The Painting by Alison Booth

About the Author, Orhan Pamuk

Ferit Orhan Pamuk (1952 –  ), generally known simply as Orhan Pamuk, is a Turkish novelist. He is also the Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches comparative literature and writing. One of Turkey’s most prominent novelists, his 9 novels to date, have sold over eleven million books in sixty languages, making him the country’s best-selling writer. Pamuk is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature 2006, the first Nobel Prize to be awarded to a Turkish citizen. The European Writers’ Parliament came from a proposal by Pamuk and José Saramago.

  • Orhan Pamuk’s website
  • BBC News Interview: “Fear and oppression makes me work harder” – The Turkish author Orhan Pamuk talks about how the current political climate in Turkey following on from last year’s attempted coup has affected his work.
  • HindustanTimes: “Thought about the subject of The Red-Haired Woman for 30 years: Orhan Pamuk”