The Towers of Trebizond

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

So begins Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, a quietly compelling and incredibly amusing story of various English expats traveling in Turkey. Having completed the novel, I find that it's actually surprising how many elements of the story can be captured in this single opening sentence. The dominant present of aunt Dot, the bestowing of a crazy camel, the question of being beholden to others, the Anglican mission. It might seem like a somewhat strange book for a modern reader, but I must say that I found myself oddly captivated by it.

Laurie is our narrator, a young woman without much direction of her own... and not much money, either. She's traveling with her aunt Dot (who, naturally, foots the bill) and their current focus is Turkey. Aunt Dot is seeking to write a book about Turkey (and indeed, everyone they know these days seems to be writing a book about Turkey) with a focus on the plight of women. Laurie will draw the accompanying illustrations while Dot discusses how miserable these Muslim women must be in their current state. The book, however, is a secondary concern, as Dot's true goal in this expedition is to be an Anglican missionary, converting Muslims to the Church of England (again, with particular focus on women). Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg is also accompanying them on their journey, as Dot feels a priest would be a necessary addition to a missionary group, and while Dot and Father Hugh don't quite see eye-to-eye on everything, they all go forth, arguing about who has to ride the camel (which belongs to Aunt Dot and which might be going slowly insane). Laurie recounts their various travels from city to city, encountering acquaintences and exploring on her own. There's certainly a melancholy air to Laurie, more about which one gradually uncovers as the novel goes on, and there's also a rather interesting view of religion expressed by one who has always had it apart of her life and yet who isn't totally convinced of its necessity or even her place within a church should she wish to believe.

As a bit of an Anglophile, this unconventional and casual (yet quite knowledgeable) discussion of the Church of England is certainly interesting... particularly given how ludicrous the overall missionary role is when clearly is ragtag band will get nowhere with any locals. The really captivating part, though, is how much the narrator is struggling with her own religion. I wouldn't necessarily call this book religious in any way (as it's not trying to persuade the reader to any understanding), but it certainly is an articulate account from one who wants to believe and yet has sincere questions. Even more poignant is Laurie's other major struggle (and it isn't giving anything away to simply note that it is, indeed, romantic in nature). The Towers of Trebizond draws you in and catches you unawares -- suddenly, one is completely wrapped up in this odd little volume, a novel that clearly belongs to another time but still possesses timeless concerns and emotions.

There are incredibly funny bits to it all -- I expected Aunt Dot to be a kind of Auntie Mame and while she is not that, she is still a ridiculously amusing aunt without any intention of being so. The total distrust of foreigners is ratcheted up in these particular places where everyone is suspected of being a spy for everyone else. The camel is a riot -- alternately suffering from insanity and amorous moods -- to the point where one almost laments the fact that transportation these days is not quite so independently minded. Almost. The sudden emergence of random people in strange places is delightful -- indicative of the world becoming smaller and the way particular places become trendy. And any reader can understand the idea of certain types of literature rising up to be all the rage, so the fact that everyone seems to be writing a Turkey book, often at the deliberate expense of others, becomes a fascinating background.

I don't quite know what mood you should be in to pick up this novel for prime enjoyment, but I do hope you select it with an open mind and the desire to simply be absorbed in a story that is (most likely) far beyond your immediate life. Drizzly afternoons with tea (aka something that feels just as English as Laurie) strike me as an excellent setting. As a character, Laurie might not do anything wild and adventurous, but I can assure you that her quiet and deep observations will always stay with me. Indeed, the whole of The Towers of Trebizond will stay with you long after you have finished reading it as you think on its contents and what it is that you would consider your own coveted lands, even if they only live on in memory.

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