The country of Turkey and its capital city, Istanbul, stand at the intersection of many rival influences: Asia and Europe; democracy and authoritarianism; Turks, Kurds and Armenians. In her debut novel, The Four Humors, Mina Seçkin throws her arms around these diverse elements and hugs them close through the story of Sibel, a 20-year-old Turkish American premedical student.
Sibel departed Brooklyn for Istanbul to study for her medical school entrance exam and to take care of her grandmother, who has Parkinson’s disease. She’s also—whether she admits it or not—fleeing the site of her father’s untimely fatal heart attack. And since maladies love company, she finds herself with a chronic headache, which she ascribes to her “humors,” referring to an ancient philosophy of medicine that suggests that health is the consequence of the balance of four components: blood, bile, choler and phlegm.
Like many archaic metaphors, the humor theory may be somewhat deficient in the specific but valuable in the general. Sibel finds evidence of the humors not only in her own body but also in her surroundings, noting that “Istanbul is a humor. The lubricant, oily and thick, black humor that begins to leak from my spleen. Istanbul is black bile, melancholy, only disguised as a city.” Sibel also employs the concept as she peels back the layers of her family history, revealing three generations’ worth of political and cultural friction. Each of the novel’s four sections invokes one of the humors, distributed across space and time, all arcing back to Sibel’s present-day state of affairs.
If all that weren’t enough to occupy the head and heart of a woman caught between cultures, Sibel is also navigating her relationship with her American boyfriend, Cooper, who has joined her for the summer. Sibel’s family’s increasing acceptance of Cooper is mirrored in inverse proportion by her growing ambivalence toward him.
Like the Russian soap operas that Sibel and her grandmother watch devotedly, The Four Humors unfolds at a leisurely pace, with an extensive cast of characters and a multigenerational plot that demands your attention. Once you fall into its rhythm, you’ll find yourself hooked.