19 Apr BOOK OF THE MONTH: Soufflé
First, a cautionary note: When reading Soufflé, make sure a kitchen is nearby. Readers with exceptional self-restraint may be able to keep from rushing off to whip up their favourite dish or attempt that ambitious recipe they’ve been meaning to try, but most won’t be able to finish the book without a kitchen break or two.
Many writers can make readers hungry with their descriptions of food. In Soufflé, the first book by Aslı Perker to be published in English, the Turkish author displays the rarer gift of making her readers want to cook.
The three main characters in Soufflé – protagonists in separate cities around the world, whose storylines never intersect – all seek refuge from their various heartbreaks in their kitchens. For each, making food is a way to reassert some degree of control over their lives. Lilia, an unappreciated housewife in New York, escapes the cold silence of her bedridden husband and alienated children by opening the house to tenants and cooking for them. Marc, a recent widower in Paris, pulls himself out of mourning by teaching himself from scratch how to cook. And Ferda, a grandmother in Istanbul, keeps herself sane in the kitchen while caring for her own mother, who is sliding into dementia.
Apart from a love for cooking, what binds these individuals together? The legendary, elusive dish for which the book is named: soufflé. As their personal lives grow more difficult, each character gravitates towards the same soufflé cookbook and starts trying to create the perfect soufflé. A challenge for even the most experienced chef, these sweet or savoury cakes are infamous for collapsing in the middle just moments after coming out of the oven. In their efforts to create a soufflé that won’t fall, Perker’s characters find strength to continue facing the bigger tribulations in their lives.
While this might sound like a trite premise, Perker mostly succeeds in avoiding clichéd moments and descriptions. Instead, she uses pauses in the action to deftly ruminate on the various dilemmas of her characters, from the guilt experienced by the child of a dying parent to the confusion a novice chef feels upon entering a kitchen-goods store. When she does acknowledge the central theme of her book – cooking as an analogy for the interplay between our destinies and our life decisions – she does so in an understated way, as when Marc realises that cooking ‘helped him divide his life into days. She stood beside him, pushing him to start living again, like a good, old friend. She didn’t let him pity himself. The kitchen didn’t have time to stop, to think, to cry. People would always return to her arms when the time was right.’
Soufflé is the third of Perker’s novels. Her other two, The Scent of Others (Başkalarının Kokusu) and Executioner’s Graveyard (Cellat Mezarlığı), also revolve around the simultaneous narratives of several characters, though in each book they are more interconnected than the three protagonists in Soufflé. A journalist for various Turkish newspapers and magazines, Perker began writing novels while working as a translator in New York, and now divides her time between Turkey and the United States.
When Soufflé was released in Turkey in 2011, it was a huge success. ‘What makes Aslı Perker’s writing so special is that she can tell the biggest tragedies without screaming, exaggerating or saying that it’s a tragedy,’ raved one review in the Turkish paper Milliyet. As Perker’s literary star rises in Turkey, where she has been a prominent speaker at literary festivals over the past several years, the English-language publication of Soufflé in April will allow a wider audience of readers to enjoy her work for the first time. Apart from occasional repetitiveness and some rather one-dimensional secondary characters, Soufflé is as rich and satisfying as its namesake. Julia Harte