A nameless student listens to her landlady’s embittered life story in a spare, oddly enthralling novel indebted to Rachel Cusk’s Outline
Pressed to name the most influential novel of the past decade, you could do worse than Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which laid a blueprint for fashionably decluttered fiction about barely-there narrators wafting through random encounters in unspecified European cities.
Jhumpa Lahiri (Whereabouts) and Katie Kitamura (Intimacies) have well-thumbed copies, at a guess, and it seems a safe bet that the Turkish-born Ayşegül Savaş, who writes in (American) English, also had one close at hand while composing this oddly enthralling tale about a postgrad student bearing witness to an artist’s marital breakdown.
Its unnamed protagonist comes to an unnamed city to spend a year viewing gothic nude sculptures as research for a thesis on medieval views of nakedness. She’s renting a flat from Pascal, an academic who lives in a nearby town with his wife, Agnes, a middle-aged painter. A couple of months into the narrator’s tenancy, Agnes turns up to join her in the flat, in a supposedly brief return to the city to plan a new exhibition of work inspired (coincidentally) by local sculpture.
We learn next to nothing of the narrator, as Agnes’s tale unspools in piecemeal vignettes
A peculiar bond ensues over kitchen-table coffee breaks as the narrator, craving approval from her magnetically elegant landlady, listens attentively to Agnes narrate at length her bitter experiences as a daughter, artist, wife and mother of two. By contrast, we learn next to nothing of the narrator, as Agnes’s tale unspools in piecemeal vignettes. When Agnes first brought Pascal home to her parents, he cut the visit short to write a paper for a symposium; when, after the birth of her first child, Agnes became friends with another new mother, Pascal hired an “extraordinarily beautiful” au pair to save her needing company.
If the reader twigs more or less right away that Pascal is something of a wrong ’un, Savaş deftly draws a veil over the exact shape of his iniquity until a surprisingly tense climax that sees him deliver his side of the story. For a novel in which, for the most part, very little happens, Savaş maintains suspense impressively via, say, ominously blank descriptions of sunlight playing on the flat’s fixtures and fittings. Rare lapses come when she seems to fret that the action, or lack of it, can’t hold our attention. When Agnes says she’ll stay longer in the flat, the narrator’s reply closes the segment with unnecessary force: “I didn’t mind, I said. In fact, I was glad to hear it, even though I did wonder what it was that kept her away from her marriage.”
It helps that Savaş is happy to acknowledge the in-built contrivance of the book’s delivery mechanism, or what the faceless protagonist calls “the monologue unravelling daily, without cease”. “I’m going on and on,” Agnes admits; the narrator, for her part, tells us she doesn’t know how to “get up and leave”. She’s essentially an old-style frame narrator lent a sliver of psychological intrigue by her situation’s creeping strangeness; eventually, the book plays out as a kind of year-abroad tale in which her education isn’t about her studies so much as Agnes’s painful dispatch from the battle lines of later life.
At one point, Agnes explains that she set herself “the challenge of painting only in white”. By telling its story at a deliberately chilly remove, White on White rises to a similar task, even if its stylish austerity can’t fully shake the sense that it also represents a canny dodge of novel-writing’s more basic grunt work.
• White on White by Ayşegül Savaş is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply