Top critical review
Without an Identity; Book Lost Its Way
Reviewed in the United States on June 11, 2018
'Without a Country' started with an intriguing premise, where a young, Jewish German doctor and academic, his wife, and their two young children have to flee Germany in the early 1930s at a moment's notice, as Hitler and the Nazi party begin their prosecution of Jews and intellectuals. They flee to Istanbul, Turkey, and the book covers their attempts as a family to assimilate and build new roots in a country that has it's own political troubles and unrest. Unrest that they become participants and victims of.
Overall, the book makes a lukewarm attempt at being written in the style of a saga, as it haphazardly covers the family and its descendants from 1933, up until 2016. The Jewish German doctor and his wife hold on to their German heritage while raising their two children in Turkey, but the children each grow up with different ideas of what their own identity is. Peter their son, is comfortable as a German Jew and later goes to study and live in America. Suzi their daughter identifies as Turkish from a very early age, much to the dismay of her mother and indifference of her father. She later marries a Muslim childhood friend and proudly expresses her Turkish identity, since it's the only country she's ever known. Suzi's daughter, Sude, is neither here nor there. She is a free spirit who travels the world at every turn, living an unattached bohemian, new age lifestyle. Sude's daughter Esra, becomes a doctor but struggles to see how she fits into the legacy of her family and the chaos of a changing Turkey and changing world.
I mention all this simply to point out that the author covers a lot of ground, and a lot of history. The history of not only the family, but also of the country of Turkey. Even though the book covers a wide span of time and multiple generations, the plot is surprisingly simplistic and sometimes dull. I felt the book read more as a melodrama with occasional familial disagreements, rather than a sweeping, multi-generational saga that had a profound lesson to impart on the reader. There's a lot of relocating around between cities in Turkey, odd couples fall in love, stubborn babies are born, plenty of eating, and a lot of admiring of the Turkish landscape. Thrown in once in a while are riots, coups, and political unrest which several of the characters get entangled in, but not entangled enough to make you feel worried for their safety. Annoyingly, the beginning chapters are plenty and very short, which I found distracting because so much was being told in short spurts, but it wasn't anything exciting or major. Despite this though, the first half of the book was enjoyable and I liked the earlier time frame of the parents and their young children.
Where the book lost me was the later third, when it changed narrative from third person to first person, in the perspective of Esra, the great-granddaughter of the original characters Gerhard and Elsa. Perhaps it was because the time frame changed from historic to the present day, or perhaps it was because the story was now being told from the perspective of a millennial who doesn't know their a*s from the elbow. Regardless of why, I was annoyed and I stopped caring. This later third of the book also felt rushed and was under developed. I had become attached to Gerhard and Elsa, who both matured and were developed as the book progressed. All of a sudden, their whiny great-granddaughter was telling me about some insipid red dress and her war correspondent lover who wants to write a book of photographs. Again, the author tried to cover a lot of ground, without really sinking her heels in and without developing anything substantial. I got to the end of the book and shook my head because it was trite and devoid of anything meaty. At the very end, the author attempted to come full circle, but instead of doing it boldly with a surprise, the story wimped out and fell flat. A book that started so well telling the story of smart, hardworking intellectuals, ends with an indecisive millennial chasing a potential broken heart. I was not impressed.
On a positive note, one thing that I think the author did well and that I liked was the descriptions of the Turkish landscape and atmosphere. The sea, the Mediterranean, ruins, and sunsets are described beautifully and I could sometimes feel the scenes based on the descriptions alone. I also liked the author's attempt at showing what individuals go through when as one character puts it, "people confuse nationality and religion." The author also did a good job trying to show that children rarely follow the footsteps of their parents, as they try to light their own path outside of the shadow of the generation that came before them.
The book's idea and the attempt to tell this story was valiant, but the result just was not gripping. Instead of trying to tell a multi-generational story in only 319 pages, I would have preferred a more focused story on one generation. The unique story of Gerhard and Elsa fleeing Germany with their two young children was enough. I didn't really care for the book's turn to tell the story of the grandchild and great-grandchild as adults. Perhaps I missed the point of the book, but at the end, I felt no attachment to it. I actually think the characters indeed had a county, they unfortunately could not reconcile what the country's purpose was as it relates to their own identity. Gerhard and Elsa figured this out. Their daughter Suzi, granddaughter Sude, and great-granddaughter Esra did not.