(And Other Stories, 2021)
Reviewed by Mish Harris
At the heart of Keeping the House is London’s drug trafficking problem. And it is a problem. When you can’t stuff heroin up a chicken’s butt anymore, how do you transport it all the way from Cyprus to London?
Told in three parts and across three generations, the story begins through the eyes of Damla, a British Cypriot girl living in London. An absent mother and pregnant friend quickly set the tone for this narrative, woven from multiple interlacing relationships. Keeping the House is a rich portrait of community, of what women get up to when men aren’t looking, of what men get up to behind those coy net curtains. Food is a recurring theme, as is coffee, kidnapping and intimidation. Sexual abuse is recounted with all the dissociative surrealism of first-person experience. How does a young girl navigate all that without losing herself?
Damla’s narration is interspersed with a kaleidoscope of other perspectives, the novel slipping seamlessly from one character to another. Part two, the meat of the novel, favours the male perspective and the intricacies of who sells what where, who’s been in jail and who’s going to be there soon if they aren’t more careful. It’s told with such gentle humour and objectivity that even the violence comes blanketed in reassuring matter-of-factness. But the novel keeps coming back to Damla and her mother: women who exist as so many women do, simultaneously at the centre and on the periphery.
While Keeping the House is absolutely a drug story, it’s fair to say it offers none of the wide-eyed super-drama Al Pacino has taught us to expect from the genre. Here, in these pages, the drug trade isn’t dramatic; it’s a necessary part of life, like coffee with crema and a safe place to rest your head, for you and your family. Yes, transporting drugs is an ongoing problem that never doesn’t need solving, but it’s also at the heart of everything, including cabbage.
After finishing Keeping the House, I wasn’t sure that I knew how to categorise it. Instead of plot it offers portraiture. Part of me would like to hang it in the National Gallery. I’d put it between a Steen and a Bruegel as a contemporary reminder that in life, as in art, everything and nothing happens simultaneously.
Literature is a wonderful place to watch nothing happen. You won’t swallow Keeping the House whole, but you will be utterly mesmerised by it. Without the page-turning greed of ‘What happens next?’ there’s time and space to appreciate everything else on offer: sentences that hum with the rhythm of real human voices, prose that morphs seamlessly into poetry and in and out of languages, chapter titles like ‘Makbule in Bed’ that mark how we all subconsciously build and store the memories that become our personal narratives.
It’s a genre-defying, form-bending piece of literature that does exactly what its last line urges so poetically:
‘Tell it so it’s yours, and it’s yours now.’