Book Review - Black Sky, Black Sea

Based on real events, Black Sky, Black Sea is set during a particularly bleak time in Turkey’s past that many will remember with regret and sorrow. Izzet Celasin is a Turkish refugee who was imprisoned after the 1980 military coup and then fled to Norway. He has turned his experiences into an absorbing and illuminating novel and is eloquent on political struggle and what leads peaceful protestors to make harsh choices or take up arms. There is much to admire in Celasin’s debut, not least that it was written in Norwegian, his adopted language, and is seamlessly translated by Charlotte Barslund.

Celasin’s protagonist, nicknamed Oak by his school friends because “it was no use trying to reason with a tree”, is young, idealistic and an aspiring poet. Like any ordinary teenager on the cusp of adulthood, Oak is experimenting with love and politics, but becomes obsessed with Zuhal, a female left-wing activist. As civil unrest erupts in Istanbul, they go their separate ways – Zuhal decides to follow the path of armed resistance while Oak remains a pacifist.

It’s a harrowing rite of passage from high school to adulthood. As an undergraduate, Oak discovers that students are targeted regardless of their politics. He narrowly escapes being tortured, survives a random shooting at his university and it quickly becomes impossible for him to finish his studies there.

Part of the novel’s fascination lies in the characters Oak encounters along the way: Ahmet, a vegetable wholesaler and “a likeable villain”; the female Professor who both inspires and protects him and Soldier, the well-connected manager of a casino and strip joint. Then there are the women that Oak loves: Ayfar, his gentle and unassuming neighbour; Zuhal the fearless freedom fighter; Semra a talented poetess; and finally Nehir who, true to her name, is like “a river; calm, wild, shallow, deep, lovely and unpredictable.”

For the most part, the story is told from Oak’s perspective and Zuhal is a shadowy figure. But there are a few occasions when we hear Zuhal’s voice, particularly towards the end when the army is closing in on her small guerrilla unit. It is telling that as their hold on each other weakens, her voice becomes stronger.

Given the various civil protests taking place today, this is a timely novel that tells a wider story. Celasin makes the daily battles between left-wing activists and nationalists, the murder of students, and the brutal suppression of dissidents into a page turner that will resonate with readers both inside and outside Turkey.

Oak, like the tree he is named after remains resilient and survives, but watches, helpless, as others fall for their beliefs or become caught up in the endless cycle of violence.

A shorter review was originally published in The Independent