The stories we construct about ourselves and others are only one way of looking at things. Ayşegül Savaş’ young female protagonist in Walking on the Ceiling tells herself this truth as she sets out to piece together her own story.
With its innately self-conscious approach, Savaş’ first novel reads much like a diary. Nurunisa tries to understand her life by making an inventory of many pivotal events, mostly recalling her friendship with a writer she calls M. They met in Paris at a reading of one of his books and walked the city streets together talking of Istanbul. She, a daughter of Turkey, and he, an admirer of her historic birthplace, connect over memories. These walks with M are many things: two foreigners bonding over a shared city; a writer looking for his next muse; a retracing of familiar steps to find what was lost or uncover something new. Nurunisa wades through these recollections alongside memories of her youth, her time in London at university and stories of her mother and father, parsing her life for significance. Her father and mother are ghosts now, hazy at the edges and insubstantial. They anchor her no more. Yet her memories of them provide the richest material in the novel, and the reader may wish Savaş would spend more time mining those relationships. The writer M is purposefully enigmatic, which intrigues but leaves a feeling of incompletion at the same time.
Throughout, Savaş writes sensitively, and personal revelations fill the pages of Walking on the Ceiling. Sentences sometimes read like an elegy not just for the city but for Nurunisa’s past as well: “Istanbul was once an innocent place, with all its trustworthy names.” The poetic quality of the author’s prose draws you in, even if the self-reflection can feel burdensome at times. The novel’s short chapters string together carefully drawn vignettes that enhance the diaristic feel of her story. Nurunisa’s thoughts and memories threaten to spill over into full understanding but never quite do; she keeps them contained, much like how she herself is still hemmed in by the past.
As a child, Nurunisa would hold a small mirror to the ceiling and discovered a hidden white city there. In Walking on the Ceiling, she’s does the same thing with her own history, twisting and turning it to see what depths of meaning she can uncover from different angles.