Keeping the House by Tice Cin review – a cult classic in the making

Crackling with energy, interdisciplinary artist Tice Cin’s debut is a kind of textual collage. It offers vistas of the Turkish communities of north London between 1999 and 2012, in pacy, often impressionistic chapters that glitter with inventive descriptions and are dotted with Turkish terms. This is a novel brimming with evocative renderings of gossip-mongering in grocery shops, belly dancing lessons, “sweated onions and potatoes … meals that slid oil into you”. Cin’s characters inhabit a noirish cityscape of smoky snooker halls, pawnshops, boarded-up houses. The anchoring narrative is a tender family drama: the experiences of single mother Ayla, Ayla’s ageing mother, and Ayla’s teenage daughter, Damla. Cin often places Damla centre stage and she proves to be gimlet-eyed in her assessments, especially of the community and its multifaceted nature:

When Ayla’s “baby daddy” is imprisoned and leaves her with a stash of heroin to “move”, entrepreneurial Ayla finds herself surrounded by such “shadows”, as she attempts to get the drugs sold. She also masterminds the smuggling of drugs from Turkey to the UK in crates of cabbages. The exciting machinations of this crime plot, which involves a dense web of head honchos and underlings, require but also reward attentive reading.

Damla’s arc is the most affecting feature of this polyphonic novel: her girlhood and emergence into womanhood, her attempts to discover her place and to find peace within an often impenetrable world. She contends with predatory neighbours, with “men who try to whittle you down”, with the domestic responsibilities heaped on her as the eldest daughter within her family. Throughout, she remains uniquely sensitive, loyal and compassionate.

These qualities come into sharp focus in Cin’s beautiful depiction of Damla’s friendship with “glamorous” Cemile. Cemile is a spiky character, a teenager with “smoke in her eyes” and a raw sense of humour, whose smell “spoke another language” to Damla. Their friendship, Damla tells us, is akin to “two spiders weaving a house together, something infinite in our making process”, a source of solace, “like water, so calm”. In Cin’s hands, this soulful connection has something of the poignancy that Elena Ferrante gives to the bond between her Lila and Lenù. The nuances of this adolescent relationship are finely, unsentimentally and empathetically observed: it is a vision of sisterly love from a writer who understands the potency of restraint. An exhilaratingly idiosyncratic first novel, Keeping the House has “cult classic” written all over it.

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