Book review: At the Breakfast Table by Defne Suman

Every family has its secrets.

Some are earth shattering, some most assuredly not, but all of them are held close to the chest of their keeper/s for fear of what they could do to the family itself and to those outside looking in, who seldom let a sound perspective or facts stand in the way of censorious judgement.

In Defne Suman’s luminously lovely but emotionally exacting novel, At the Breakfast Table, the family of legendary artist Sirin Saka have gathered to celebrate a milestone for their matriarch at their ancestral family home on Büyükada (Prinkipo Island), a short ferry ride from Istanbul, but a world away once you step onto its bucolic, unhurried shores (unhurried save for the tourists who descend in summer).

She is about to turn 100, and in the days leading up to that momentous event, where celebration should be the sole order of the day, secrets begin to emerge, some small but still momentous for those affected by them, and a large, family-bestriding one that Saka, and her faithful companion/servant/friend Sadik Usta, have kept under the covers for well near a century.

As is the often the way with dam breaking, of the actual or metaphorical kind, small cracks appear at first, many of them engendered by the sheer fact that the family are back in a place where so much of their collective life has taken place and which, because of that, can’t help but feel redolent with a lifetime, several in fact, of memories, hopes raised and dreams sundered.

“Then Celine poked me and I had to open my eyes. Dream over. Forced landing into the present. When the wheels hit the ground, my headache returned. I ran through a mental checklist: me, Burak Gokce, forty-four years old, male, currently staying at Shirin Saka’s house on the island of Büyükada. What day was it? Sunday. The second day of the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. Tomorrow was Shirin Saka’s hundredth birthday and I was there both as a family friend and as a journalist.”

The breaking apart of the walls between generations and between the conventional family history, which is already painful enough as it is without any further surprises, is an organic one though it does receive a significant push along when Burak, a family friend of many years who is deeply in love with Saka’s granddaughter Nur – a love, by the way, that she dabbles in when emotional needs demand but which she puts aside like an item of convenience that can be accessed with no consequence – and who has become known for his journalistic series of profiles known as Portraits, which aim to bring to life hitherto unknown things about the subject.

He is there to interview Saka as much as to celebrate her life, and on the first morning he is there, at a breakfast table lavishly decorated with by Sadik who is in his early 90s but as committed and devoted as ever to the welfare of his beloved Saka, to talk to the artist who is strangely loquacious, ready to talk in a way the once-fiery rule-breaker often isn’t in her old age.

Burak’s is not a confrontational interview style, with the journalist in him happy to go where the subject leads, but while Saka doesn’t spill the beans there and then, enough is suggested for Burak, and other members, to come to understand there is more to the matriarch’s story that has previously been suggested.

In a way, the family isn’t necessarily eager to uncover the deep, dark truth of their shared past, but truth, once hinted at, often breaks mercilessly free from its cage, and so it is in At the Breakfast Table which, told from the vantage points of Sadik, Burak, Nur and her niece Celine, slowly builds the portrait of a family with a great deal to learn about each other.

(courtesy official author site (c) Asli Girgin)

Told with insightfully empathetic language and a poetical intent which still allows the raw truth and pain to come through when needed, At the Breakfast Table is a wondrously nuanced and deftly, slowly told tale which understands all too well that even the biggest of secrets rarely come rushing out with blockbuster-type force; rather they are revealed, inch by inch, memory by memory, the product of incremental admissions that together, over time, paint a picture of a world that the recipients never knew existed.

For all of the powerfully impactful emotional resonance of this gorgeously-rendered novel, it is luxuriously and thoughtfully told, with each of the four perspectives, which naturally encompass those too of Nur’s brother and Celine’s father Fikret, who is on a mission that sees him mysteriously disappear at the height of festivities, and Nur’s estranged husband Ufuk, who is keeping his distance from the family for reasons that come to light in the slowly-tumbling torrent of secrets that come to see the light of day over one unexpectedly intense weekend.

The beguiling genius of At the Breakfast Table is that it never submits to melodrama or high emotion, preferring a quiet, meditative and appealingly languorous, richly human approach, even when Celine is distraught over the father’s whereabouts or Burak is wrestling once again with his unending but fruitless attraction to Nur, who does not and seemingly cannot love him the way he wants.

“The atmosphere in the dining room had become heavy. Time had slowed. We were like the wagons of a long-distance train, and the silence of the house no longer made me uneasy. I had ceased to wonder where the other members of the family were. I felt that Madam Shirin and I had passed into a world that contained just the two of us, and I hoped that no one would come into the house, that we two could remain alone in that world forever.”

Through the ruminatively unfolding beauty of a novel whose pace belies the momentous events and emotions within (though at dramatic point that does change to an almost manically earnest degree), we get to know each of the four people and those with whom they interact to degrees that feel invasively but welcomingly intimate.

There is both a sense of life unfolding as it always on Büyükada, with the family home wielding its usual magic and people falling into their expected and comfortable roles and patterns, and of the established order being upended, a status quo-changing turn of events that makes its presence felt slowly but surely, and which in its wake leaves a family not so much ruined, as different, good and bad, which is very much how life often tends to leave things – unfinished and somewhere messily in the middle.

At the Breakfast Table is a brilliantly evocative piece of writing, rich in memorable, exquisitely well-drawn and beautifully, fallibly, alive characters, a narrative that takes its time unspooling its secrets and which is more groundbreakingly intense that its pace or atmosphere might suggest, and a sense of humanity that understands how history, over which we hold little sway, and life choices come together to craft a reality which we can embrace or not, but which somehow, inevitably, will always find its way out, leaving the world, and in this case, a family changed in its wake.

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