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Tracing family secrets in Istanbul in ‘The Four Humors’

A view of Istanbul.Emrah Gurel/Associated Press

If stories expand us, secrets shrink us, as this deep, wise, and intricate debut novel by Mina Seçkin illustrates.

The Four Humors” is a pungent mix of politics and family dynamics, set in Turkey a year after the Gezi Park protests of 2013. It’s also an unearthing of the buried secrets in the family of origin of 20-year-old Sibel.

Turkish-American Sibel is in Istanbul for the summer to care for her grandmother, to visit her father’s grave, and to study for the MCAT. She brings along her blond boyfriend, Cooper, an earnest, perceptive, famously kind guy who makes weekly lists of how to improve himself. He has found a job at an Istanbul hospital.


Instead of preparing for the MCAT, Sibel spends her days watching soap operas with her lovable grandmother and reading about the four humors — choler, bile, blood, and phlegm — through which the ancients explained sickness. She slipped down that rabbit hole when researching causes of the headaches that began to plague her shortly after she arrived in Istanbul.

“The ancient doctors focused not just on physical ailments, but temperaments, too,” she says.

Due to her deep grief over the sudden death of her father in their Brooklyn home the winter before, Sibel’s own temperament is underwater. As the first-person narrator, she is slyly funny and deadpan. Dialogue is delivered without quotation marks, giving the novel an interior quality. This suits the novel well, as Sibel is preoccupied not just with bile and phlegm, but also with big moral questions.

Most poignantly, Sibel feels responsible for her father’s death. As a pre-med student, she knew the signs of a heart attack. Yet, after her father collapsed in the kitchen, she froze for just a few seconds before her sister came into the room and quickly called 911.


Her immediate family reassures her she is not to blame, but a mysterious woman with a tracheostomy hole in her throat had confronted her at the winter burial service, accusing her of letting her father die.

The unspooling of clues that slowly reveals this mystery woman’s identity, and the burdensome secret her grandmother has carried, form the burning, bright core of the novel.

Sibel is obsessed by her father’s character: “I also wonder when my father turned into the easily angered person he died as.”

When young, Sibel’s parents were revolutionaries: “They fought for an anti-capitalist Turkey in the ‘70s. America made them change.”

Overarching these questions is Sibel’s relationship with Cooper. The longer she stays in Turkey, secretly smoking, the more Sibel sags, whereas the earnest Cooper is energized. Consumed with trying to get Sibel to visit her father’s grave, he counsels her to decouple her guilt and grief. He’s also grown close to her grandmother, Nermin, who’s teaching him to cook her favorite recipes. He says he wants to stay in Turkey and help Syrian refugees.

Nermin tries to camouflage the toll that Parkinson’s is taking on her. She chooses instead to try to care for others, like her depressed granddaughter Sibel, ostensibly there to care for her. Sibel’s sister Alara, also grieving — although channeling her grief into a serious eating disorder — arrives in Istanbul right after Sibel and Cooper decide to take a break from their relationship.

Although there’s romance and intrigue in Sibel’s cat-and-mouse relationship with Cooper, the love Sibel has for her grandmother is steady and sustaining. Right before the older woman unburdens her big secret, Sibel has a moment where she sees her grandmother in profile, as if in a palimpsest: “She walks out into the hallway and I follow her to the kitchen, where I lean against the door, and when she turns her head to see if I’m there I see her young, as if she’s my own sister, and I see what my mother says about my grandmother and me and Alara, how our brow bone is strong and hard above our eyes, how our lips have the same giant dip under the nose, a dip large enough to trap beads of water, and I stand still, in awe of her …”


The very direct Alara’s arrival begins to move Sibel out of the stasis of her grief. A crisis around Alara’s anorexia and bulimia pushes all the characters from their corners and brings Sibel’s mother back to Turkey from New York. Even though they are reunited in a hospital room, Sibel begins to feel strangely happy, more complete.

After a pilgrimage to their mother’s home village — which seems a bit tacked-on — Sibel, Alara, and their mother prepare to depart Istanbul for New York.

Sibel reflects: “The flight to and from Istanbul is one of my favorite things. Hearing the Turkish language in transit spaces that are rubbed clean of any cultural signifier fills me with something. A tribalism free from nationhood, government, control. Maybe this is what they call kinship.”


Seçkin’s first novel is almost too loaded. But for the patient, dedicated reader, the rewards are immense. “The Four Humors” is a novel about connecting the dots — between people, countries, and cultures. Sibel, the aspiring doctor, realizes she doesn’t just have a body, she is a body. And she doesn’t just have a feeling, she could be the feeling.

“The Four Humors” unites and transports the reader with a throat-tugging ending, demonstrating the power of stories to expand us all.


By Mina Seçkin

Catapult, 357 pp., $27

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic.