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Review: Soufflé, By Asli Perker

Tender tale rises to the challenge

Soufflés are notoriously hard to get just right. The centres have a tendency to collapse as soon as they are out of the oven. Asli Perker's first novel to have been translated into English (she translated it herself) is similarly ambitious. The Turkish author has set herself a hard task by choosing to write about ageing, death, and grief in a domestic setting, but, for the most part, she pulls it off.

We follow the fortunes of three characters in late middle-age, living in different cities and coming to terms with dramatic changes in their lives. Lilia is 62 when her husband, Arnie, suffers a stroke. He becomes bedridden and all of their savings go on his hospital treatment, so Lilia has to rent rooms in their New York home to make ends meet. In Istanbul, Ferda's elderly mother, Mrs Nesibe, has also taken to her bed after breaking her hip. She refuses to get up and swiftly deteriorates into dementia. Marc, a Parisian, has lost his beloved wife of 22 years and suddenly has to look after himself.

Perker's characters seek solace in their cooking. Their stories are linked by one particular cookbook on soufflés, sub-titled "The Biggest Disappointment", and they all try their hand at this difficult dish. Along the way we learn that Lilia and Arnie's marriage has been a sham, and that years earlier she had unwittingly signed over any right to their shared assets. Perker eloquently captures Lilia's quiet despair as she comes to terms with her wasted years in a loveless marriage. This is neatly summarised in her brief fixation with one of her younger tenants that, almost inevitably, ends in disappointment. Meanwhile Marc has to learn to cook, which means buying kitchen utensils and learning how to use them – with disastrous consequences.

There is rather too much detail in some passages and Perker has a tendency to tell rather than show her characters' emotions, but she writes movingly about the ageing process, dealing with disappointment, and adapting to major life changes. She also writes very well about dementia and finds humour in Mrs Nesibe's frequent digressions and various alter egos. Like all good books that focus on food, Perker's descriptions of cooking should stimulate readers' taste buds and have them itching to get into the kitchen.

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