Book Review: A Prowl in the Dead of Night by Rüya Kızılay
The Triumphant Return of Folklore
“Does someone lurk in the shadows, or are the shadows lurkers themselves?” is the chilling opening line that sets the tone for the rest of Rüya Kızılay’s debut novel, A Prowl in the Dead of Night. I am still not sure whether I can qualify my experience of reading the work as suddenly seeing someone I have known for years unzip their skin to reveal an extra-terrestrial hiding beneath, or as taking a sip of a suspicious looking liquid, to be pleasantly surprised by the lively notes of a home-made herbal liquor. In any case, the book had me in its grips until I swallowed it whole, yet without the ease of consuming some series’ season on Netflix in a day.
The reading was rewarding, but only in so far as I was an active participant in the process: jumping around with the style, lest I be left behind; following Kızılay’s clues, because they subtly and firmly built upon each other; making sense of mysterious metaphors and descriptions that, more than escaping translation, seemed to have been constructed in such a way with purpose, intention, so that only a deserving few feel like they’ve grasped what was meant. Despite demanding my active participation, the subject and style embroiled a strange fantasy world and story so naturally and with such seeming ease, that suspending disbelief occurred without a moment of thought. This only attests to Kızılay’s craftsmanship.
Prowl is set in modern day Istanbul, but an Istanbul below the surface of the Istanbul we know today; the Istanbul below rickety wooden chairs left on corners, within the unnoticed passages sneaking between two buildings, inside municipal cat houses, and in the blue iris of the evil eyes (nazar boncuğu) that stand guard over every entrance. Kızılay has foraged in the millennia-old fantasy tradition from the lands of the Middle East, and has come back with a world that despite all the modern demystification, can still be home to mystery, can still be a land of fairytales, where the space is wide for jinns (genies), dwarves, gelins, women who speak to angels, and the Al Rukh, the giant bird of Sinbad’s travels that has taken on the form of Istanbul’s most popular bird – the seagull. The story takes us through the journey of Gaya, a fortune teller coming from a long line of women in that trade, in a search for her grandmother who disappeared in Cyprus during the conflict in the 60’s.
Although Turkish literature and cinema often possess strong elements of magical realism, this is one of the works that is contemporarily unique in its status of belonging to the fantasy genre without reserve. While in films such as Onur Ünlü’s “Sen Aydınlatırsın Geceyi” (“Thou Gild’st the Even”) magic is integrated as a part of the mundane, Kızılay’s narrative is the story of magic itself, where although the supernatural is the norm, it remains extraordinary. And this, indeed, was surprising – it would seem that Kızılay has taken it upon herself to bring folklore back to the surface of her readers’ collective consciousness.
Gaya’s communication with cats and other supernatural beings (indeed, the book once and for all proves that cats are supernatural) leads her to believe that her grandmother is still alive and somewhere in Istanbul. This takes the reader through an elaborate and intricate hunt through some of Istanbul’s most contrasting neighborhoods – from the conservative atmosphere of Fatih, to the poverty in Tarlabaşı, to the luxury of Pera which spreads mere meters above it, to the hectic streets of Kadıköy, right into a treasure cove hidden below the Bosphorus. The tour leaves anyone passing through Istanbul with the impulse to pay really close attention to oft-neglected details, because the reader can no longer be sure what hides under doormats, behind rainbow-colored staircases, or even in the seemingly empty corners of the metro.
“Is it your own reflection that you see in the water, or is it millions of homeless bits of soul gathered as particles to imitate you, to be a part of something, your field of vision, you, to be recognized, not as the other but as a reflection of oneself, to be something of someone, for a fleeting moment?”
Kızılay keeps playing with the perception of the narrator, Gaya, simultaneously playing with the field of vision of the reader. While the universe is expanding, the reader is constantly reminded that the narrative’s worldview is guided, that a speaker’s reliability is a fickle matter, and that, essentially, fickleness is oftentimes near the core of the ‘human condition’. On the cultural side of things, the unexpected brawls throughout the novel between ifrits and jinns, or gelins and ancient pirates, bring to the surface the shifting form of womanhood in Muslim societies, while interactions between past and present, which builds upon volumes of Turkish literature, question the role of past conflicts in the constructing of the narratives passed on to the future. Yet, another mark of Kızılay’s finely tuned writing, is that the themes never distract from the plot or make the story feel too heavy with social cause.
A Prowl in the Dead of Night felt like a book dug up in a second-hand bookstore, a rare find that I would then pass on to my entire group of friends, asking, how is this not grander? Kızılay’s debut left me excited to see what she produces next, and until then, I will have Gaya’s journey to go back to, time and again, both in print, and on the winding streets of Istanbul.
Hana Korneti is an award-winning author of short fiction based in Skopje. She lived and wrote in Istanbul for many years, earning an MA in Cultural Studies at Sabancı University. She is currently working on a short story collection, and hopes to one day write a novel bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rüya Kızılay’s debut.