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28 February 2006

The Virgin's Knot (2002)

By Holly Payne

From the author's website: "She is called Nurdane, the famed weaver of Mavisu. From her remote mountain village in southwestern Turkey, she creates dowries for young brides: dazzling rugs, marvels of shape and color, texture and light. But it is her hands - the hands of an artist, and a virgin - that hold the essence of her mystery. An extraordinary series of events drives Nurdane to question the limitations of her faith and culture as she is caught between remaining pure in body and spirit... or risking everything for love. A novel imbued with the history and lore of Turkish culture and tradition, The Virgin's Knot chronicles a young woman's journey from innocence to knowledge, from loneliness to love."

What are the chances that I would review two items with the word "virgin" in the title, back-to-back? But there could hardly be two more divergent works of fiction!

The above description presents a cloyingly optimistic and romantic scenario, very little of which actually transpired. In reality, the book is darker and more opaque, with little by way of a happy or conventional conclusion. Nurdane's father, Ali, used his daughter's illiteracy - a condition forced on her by the tenants of Islam - to protect her from the painful truths of her existence as a crippled polio survivor. He insisted, when she was a young, gifted child sitting at the loom, that when Allah takes something, he provides something in return. By giving her a religious crutch on which to hang her sorrows and make peace with her deformed legs, Ali inadvertently stole from her any hope of a normal life.

From his lie, Ali created a spiritual deformity in Nurdane and a corruption of her identity that proved far more crippling than her disease. First, the small village of 50-odd families set Nurdane apart from them. She became The Virgin whose hands were guided to inspired perfection by Allah as she created woven masterpieces. She walked apart, lived in relative isolation, and proceeded through life with no expectation that she would ever marry and enjoy the simple domestic pleasures that other women would attain as a matter of given course. Most of the villagers feared and respected her, but friendship of a genuine, ordinary sort was not to be had.

Second, Ali took from Nurdane any pride and satisfaction in her own creativity and workmanship. Her rugs were priceless, wondrous creations of depth and beauty, but she gave all of the credit to Allah. By the reasoning of her father's lie, Nurdane rationalized that Allah would have withheld his gift - and she would never have become such an amazing weaver - if she had not contracted polio. She had an identity, yes, but it was one apart from her fellow villagers and one robbed of the pleasure she might derive from her own talent.

When John Hennessey, a forensic anthropologist, arrives with Nurdane's doctor, Adam, and as both men vie, in their own ways, for her attention, she is lost and bereft of any security her identity once provided. How can she remain this pure vessel for Allah if she experiences lust or acts on those feelings? The simple, time-honored reconciliation of spirituality with base, human desires - marriage - is denied her. She has been trained she childhood to think of her hands as pure, untouchable tools for a higher power, and thus even a sanctified marriage is unattainable. The result is heartbreak and a tragedy of misunderstanding that is at once fantastic and grim.

Only Hennessey understood the paradox of Nurdane's faith and personality, and he suffered her loss is a way that differed radically from even Adam and Ali. He understood that she was gifted, an artist of the rarest sort, but that she was also a woman. She was not a medical conundrum or a sacrosanct icon. And that woman could not survive the burdens of her gifted isolation.

While I found this book intellectually stimulating, with regard to questions of identity, femininity, religion, faith, and filial love, the text itself was rather cold and distant. Emotions were less felt than described or analyzed, rendering Nurdane's attraction to Hennessey one of psychological import rather than the passionate longing of the heart. Nurdane was a frustrating creation, both wise and so terribly naive, but she was a fully-fleshed human unlike any of the other characters. Hennessey was too stereotyped and randomly motivated to make sense entirely, and his goals both professionally and at the Mavisu dig were poetic but undefined. The other villagers were sheltered under the umbrella of "good Muslims," so their individuality was never fully engaged.

Dialogue was unmarked by quotation marks, making certain passages (especially those rife with pronouns) difficult to follow. The language was spare but surprisingly accurate. While obviously well-researched by a woman who loves the nation of Turkey, this book had none of the pompous, over-reaching descriptions of an author trying to cram as much authenticity into the prose as possible. The result was a picture of life I want nothing to do with and to which I can barely relate. Nurdane was a woman hampered by physical ailments, yes, but also by illiteracy, blind faith, and her father's restrictions, the result of which was a desperate plea for identity given voice only in the knots of her ancient craft.

Vocab: muezzin, minaret, internecine, mordant

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