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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Songs My Mother Never Taught Me

Selçuk Altun

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To purchase Songs My Mother Never Taught Me

Title: Songs My Mother Never Taught Me
Author: Selçuk Altun
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 212 pages
Original in: Turkish
Availability: Songs My Mother Never Taught Me - US
Songs My Mother Never Taught Me - UK
Songs My Mother Never Taught Me - Canada
Songs My Mother Never Taught Me - India
  • Turkish title: Annemin Öğretmediği Şarkılar
  • Translated by Ruth Christie and Selçuk Berilgen

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinatingly twisted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 2/2/2009 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "While some readers may be disappointed by what happens when the two main characters finally meet, the lean prose and deft pacing make this more than a routine revenge tale." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Songs My Mother Never Taught Me is an unlikely and somewhat awkward title for a novel in which murder-for-hire plays such a prominent role and one of the narrators is a professional assassin, but the book is also far from any sort of conventional thriller.
       In alternating chapters two narrators tell their stories. The one is the very well-to-do Arda, finally liberated from his incredibly overbearing mother's overwhelming grip by her death; the other is Bedirhan, who has made his fortune as a hitman after coming from much more humble circumstances. Both are bookish -- with Bedirhan even moonlighting in various small-time literature-related jobs, though he certainly has no need for the small amounts he makes there.
       Arda's father was killed when the boy was fourteen, and after his mother's death Arda decides to try to get to the bottom of that unsolved crime; it's no surprise who is behind it -- or at least pulled the trigger.
       The organisation Bedirhan works for is the Mecruh, or El Mekrub:

In exchange for a fee from injured clients we assist justice by restoring their rights.
       The fees are huge, the injuries of the sort that society generally frowns upon but often aren't illegal. So also in the case of Arda's father, a brilliant mathematician: his misdeeds turn out to be slightly shocking, but he didn't exactly have this coming. Eventually Arda learns more about his parents -- and the girl from next door he had a crush on as a child -- than he may have wanted to. Bedirhan, meanwhile, is more of a cool customer, though he also finds himself entangled in a more complicated web than he might have thought: hitman work turns out not to be quite as straightforward as it was made out to be.
       The title of the novel refers to a piece by Dvořák, and the use of that for the title is at least appropriate in the sense that Songs My Mother Never Taught Me is full of reference and allusion. A very (but casually) literary thriller, its bookish protagonists read everything from the noir classics to the collected works of Thomas Bernhard and Paul Auster. With mention of books ranging from Iain Sinclair's Suicide Bridge to "Gerhard Köpf's dilemma-ridden novel There is No Borges", as well as quotes from a variety of Turkish sources (including Küçük Iskender's Rock Manifesto), it is full of (relatively) unforced border-defying literary play: at one level, Altun's audience is the modern European reader (meaning the cultured European who actually reads and keeps up with contemporary literature). [Altun does it well -- hence also the disappointment that they misspell W.S.Merwin's name .....] But it's fairly enjoyable on it's more fundamental, semi-psychopathic level too. And, yes, there's a lot of psychopathy, from Arda's insanely domineering mother to ... Bedirhan's mother, who killed his dad (and his mistress) and then herself when he was a boy. (There's also an Uncle, who is constantly going off (or, one should say regarding some of them: getting off) on some tour or quest, ranging from one: "exploring Californian landmarks which cropped up in William Saroyan's stories" to a considerably seedier one on the trail of Egon Schiele.
       Slightly more forced, but also fairly entertaining is the shadowy presence of a family friend that Arda doesn't particularly like named ... Selçuk Altun. Arda hasn't really bothered with the guy's novels but finally does have a look at them and finds:
I knew now why my mother hadn't steered me towards these works which, I had to admit, were absorbing. Unfortunately, this unattractive man, whom I had known since childhood, had -- when in trouble -- used me as a model for the protagonist and narrator in his novels.
       Yes, it's that kind of metafictional novel, too. Much of this presumably works better in a world where Altun's fictional world is better-known (this is the first of his works to be translated into English), but it's not made into too much of a weight for the book to bear.
       Songs My Mother Never Taught Me is a somewhat loose and distracted search-for-answers, and the fact that both protagonists have it (at least materially) so effortlessly easy gives Altun a bit too much freedom with them, making their stories slightly less compelling than they probably should be. Altun twists them and his plot into a few too many knots, but his style is fairly appealing and there's good fun to be had here. The story (or stories) feel a bit lost here (in psychopathic excess, for one), and the book probably works better in a larger context (i.e. alongside Altun's other work, for a start), but it's an enjoyable (if twisted) ride -- and Altun is definitely an author to look out for.

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Songs My Mother Never Taught Me: Reviews: Other books by Selçuk Altun under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Turkish author Selçuk Altun was born in 1950.

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© 2009-2013 the complete review

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