This post was written by guest contributor Rahela Choudhury, and contains spoilers about the book.
Alan Drew’s Gardens of Water focuses on how two families become forever intertwined after a devastating earthquake wreaks havoc upon their lives. The story takes place in a Turkish town on the outskirts of Istanbul. The two main families in the story, one consisting of Kurdish refugees and the other of American expats, reside in the same apartment building. The Kurdish family is composed of Sinan, along with his wife Nilufer, nine-year-old son Ismail, and fifteen-year-old daughter Irem. The members of the American family are Marcus, his wife Sarah, and seventeen-year old son Dylan.
The story begins the day before the earthquake strikes. Ismail undergoes a circumcision that ends with his family holding a “Sunnet,” or cultural celebration in honor of the event. Besides friends and family, Nilufer convinces Sinan to allow their American neighbors to attend. That night while everyone is asleep, the earthquake strikes. For the first few days afterwards, Ismail is nowhere to be found, with everyone believing him to be dead. However, it is soon discovered that Ismail was actually saved by the American neighbor Sarah, who died protecting him.
From there, the story details the way Sinan’s family struggles to survive in a relief camp set up by Marcus and some American missionaries. Meanwhile, Irem and Dylan secretly begin forging a closer bond together, borne out of the life-changing circumstances in which they both find themselves.
This post will deal primarily with Irem’s relationships with the three male characters in the story, namely her father Sinan, her brother Ismail, and her boyfriend Dylan. Irem’s relationship with her father is characterized by mutual unease and frustration. It is made clear early on that Sinan is exasperated about having to deal with a teenage daughter. The first interaction between them ends up being an argument over her watching too many Western shows. Sinan not only assumes that Irem watches too much TV, but also mistakenly believes that she hasn’t helped her mother out in preparing for Ismail’s party. Irem blames her father’s perceived indifference as being due to him favoring Ismail.
In turn, Irem’s relationship with her younger brother is shaped by both jealousy and guilt. She wonders why, for example, Ismail’s circumcision, his coming-of-age ritual, makes him eligible for a big celebration, while her own coming-of-age ritual, signified by the donning of hijab, was treated as a somber occasion by her parents. Irem also compares the way her parents always make her do chores around the house (and in the camp) while allowing her brother to play outside. Finally, Irem’s guilt over her antagonism towards Ismail manifests when she briefly wishes her brother was killed by the quake, only to banish the thought immediately out of shame.
Living in an open-air refugee camp ironically gives Irem more freedom to meet Dylan clandestinely. As her interactions with him become known throughout the camp, Irem and Dylan decide to secretly escape to Istanbul. It is once there, however, that Dylan betrays Irem in the worst possible way, leading to her eventual suicide.
As can be seen above, Drew has incorporated various clichés, common to most Western novels about Muslims, into his main characters. There’s the domineering and tradition-bound Muslim father (and mother), the son that gets doted upon, and the daughter who is at odds with her parents over traditions and gender roles. And of course no story like this would be complete without the (Western) white knight in shining armor there to save the Muslim woman. What’s interesting here, however, is that Drew manages to subvert these literary tropes so that the story doesn’t follow the same predictable pattern as most other Muslim-centered novels in the West.
The subversion begins with Irem becoming unsure about whether she really wants to run away from her old life and family once she reaches Istanbul. Her uncertainty increases as she witnesses Dylan behaving erratically after drinking heavily at a club. It ends with Irem running away from, instead of staying with, Dylan after he rapes her in a drunken stupor. Once Irem returns to the camp, she begs for her father to take her back. Sinan’s rejection of her appeal, on top of Dylan’s betrayal, causes Irem to end her life.
Sinan’s characterization also defies stereotypes to some extent, when we see him regret rejecting Irem, instead of losing compassion for her forever because she “betrayed” the so-called family honor. Later, he is found trying to bring about some justice for Irem, by confronting Marcus over the crime his son committed against her.
Alan Drew’s first novel is sensitive and thought-provoking, yet also highly depressing to read. From the moment the earthquake strikes (based on a real-life quake that struck Turkey back in 1999) till the time Irem commits suicide, the story will keep hitting you with one tragedy after another. Regarding the characters, even though Drew incorporates some clichés and stereotypical behaviors into them, he also manages to infuse them with some level of complexity and unpredictability. His details regarding the earthquake and its harrowing aftermath are grippingly clear and compelling, since they emanate from his having personally experienced the actual Marmara earthquake. This book is an overall remarkable story to read.