The tree of guilt: Şebnem İşigüzel’s novel “Ağaçtaki Kız”

You might claim that Şebnem İşigüzel’s latest novel Ağaçtaki Kız (The Girl in the Tree) is a love story without a happy ending. Indeed, it is. Two teenagers fall in love while discovering each other’s traumatic pasts. Probably nothing would be extraordinary about that if the girl hadn’t decided to live in a tree… and if the boy didn’t overcome his fear of heights to be with her. But these are only details in a broader historical picture that Şebnem İşigüzel paints in very sensitive colours.

Especially after the Gezi Park events, trees have gained symbolic meaning in Turkey. The protagonist Deniz (meaning “sea”) whose name we learn on the very last page, associates her new home in-between green leaves with the sensation of having found a tree of life. Without nature that generously protects her from haunting memories, she would either have become insane or committed suicide. Of course, a young girl does not climb a tree, neglect all hygienic needs and stay away from her family without a serious reason. It is the feeling of guilt that turns a normal teenager into “the girl in the tree”. She was supposed to travel to Suruç with her two closest friends and other young idealists to bring toys, clothes and books to the children living in this border town. What we remember of them are their smiling faces. The 32 of them were killed on the 20th of July 2015.

The girl in the tree could have been one of the victims. It is her personal fate not to be with her friends at that moment. However, she follows their journey on Twitter, deeply regretting not to have accompanied them after all. By reading everything they share on social media platforms, she tries to compensate for her physical absence in a bus full of young lives that is slowly approaching death. When she learns that her friends will never come back from Suruç, she can no longer face daily life as it is. The traumatic experience of guilt makes her escape into the trees of a park where she hopes to find a certain peace of mind. It is here that Yunus who works in a hotel discovers her. He has many things in common with this girl: They were both at Gezi Park because they wanted to make this world a better place. It seems to be their shared destiny to be torn apart between the desire to remember and to forget the injustices happening in their country.

The headings of all chapters directly refer to Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp, which illustrates that communication without using social media networks has almost become impossible. Depending on the narrative purpose, the language employed by the protagonist ranges from swear words and short, simple sentences in Twitter-like style to deep philosophical reflections expressed in a sophisticated way. Shifts between flashbacks that provide insights into the families of Deniz and Yunus alter with passages that describe these two lonely teenagers helping each other to survive in a traumatizing present. One after another, Şebnem İşigüzel introduces the protagonist’s grandmothers, parents, aunts, friends and even her literature teacher into the novel who all at one point or another play a crucial role in her character development. Her conflicts with her teacher Özlem Hanım about how to write a novel provide interesting ideas about literature as such. In terms of narrative techniques and structure, Ağaçtaki Kız might be one of the most original works in contemporary Turkish literature. It is also one of the most human literary approaches to history that combines individual experiences with hard facts.

Life is not the way we live it. It is the way we remember it. As long as we keep our loved ones in our hearts, they do not die. Şebnem İşigüzel dedicated this novel to all children and young people who were killed because they had idealistic dreams. For us readers, the story told by the girl in the tree is difficult to bear. We can only imagine what a burden living has turned into for those left behind after such tragedies. The girl in the tree will accompany us still long after its last page is turned. 

© Mine Krause                 Ankara, 30/10/2017



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