How do you reconcile the national identity of your ancestors with the person you are today? The children of recent immigrants will most likely have a stronger sense of duality because they are exposed to their parents’ culture which was brought from somewhere else and that of the society which they’ve been raised in. The main characters in “The House in Smyrna” have an even more blended sense of self because their family has strong roots in Portugal, recent ties with Turkey and eventually moved to settle in Brazil. Rather than tell the story of how a child of immigrants embraces or rejects her various cultural influences, Tatiana Salem Levy does something radically new with her narrative by moving between characters and periods of time in brief image-driven sections. This creates an emotionally-charged story which blends disparate elements together to show how there can be no true cohesive sense of self.
The primary drive of this tale is a key left to a character whose grandfather tells her it is for the house he left in Smyrna, Turkey. Alongside her journey (which might be real or imagined) to seek out this ancestral home there are the stories of a man caring for his dying mother, a heated and tempestuous lovers’ relationship, the incarceration and abuse of a political dissident and a writer whose body is breaking down. This may sound like a lot to include in such a short novel. At first it can prove a bit confusing between these strands of narrative because few names are used. However, they quickly take on the characteristic of a unified voice searching and seeking out a place to call home. The narrator declares: “I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name… I was born away from myself, away from my land – but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?” This narrative embodies this sense of anonymity as a strategy for contemplating these insolvable dilemmas. Imagery is repeated throughout different sections making the experiences of the characters feel unified. Strong sensations of pleasure or pain are carried between one part and the next fusing them together. The line of time is subverted through these methods to suggest subtleties not available in traditional ways of storytelling.
Inevitably, this sometimes gave the disappointing effect of making me want to know more about the specifics of certain characters and their dilemmas. In particular, the sections about the brutality of the Brazilian military during the dictatorship feel like they deserve a wider space to deal with the complexities of the situation. However, the pointedly strong imagery which appears in some sections makes up for this consciously shortened style of storytelling. Scenes of grief, isolation, discovery, pleasure are rendered with impeccably-crafted prose making them strongly resonant. There are instances of sexual power play, the sense of exploration in a foreign country and the bitter sting of mourning which are depicted in a way that really transported me. The novel also includes some plot twists which give these tales a strikingly charged quality making the piles of detail you’d get in more traditional narratives feel superfluous.
“The House in Smyrna” is an emotional, startling novel that makes every sentence earn its place. As a narrator in the novel passionately declares: “If my writing doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t exist.” The intensity of writing here does feel as if the writer has shed her life into it. This is a book written by someone who is deeply concerned about the meaning of identity and finding a way to express the full complexity of it. It’s what makes this such a noble and intense novel.
Read an excellent interview with the author here: https://scribepublications.co.uk/explore/insights/tatiana-salem-levy-q-a/