Pamuk masterfully contrasts East with West, tradition with modernity, the power of fables with the inevitability of realism. Can we have our myths but be spared their consequences? As usual, Pamuk handles weighty material deftly, and the result is both puzzling and beautiful.
Many of Pamuk’s works, including My Name Is Red, Snow, and The Black Book, contain self-conscious, postmodern twists in which the tale reflects back on itself. This one is packed with so many allusions to patricide and filicide that the plot ends up overdetermined. Perhaps the point is that human freedom is an illusion, that by trying to elude fate we only end up hastening its arrival. But Pamuk has also built a structure whose scaffolding has not been removed. It is a well site that, for all the strenuous digging, comes up dry. Narrated by a middle-aged Cem reflecting on the passions and blunders of his youth, the opening section is the most evocative part of the novel. The rest, delivered by another narrator, is commentary ... The myths of violent encounters between fathers and sons that are the subtext for The Red-Haired Woman are familiar and credible. But the story contrived to give fresh life to those myths creaks.
Pamuk’s chief handicap as a novelist has always been his eager didacticism, his spotlighting of all the allusions and symbols. Here there are symbolic stars, symbolic books, symbolic women, intercut with loads of uselessly deep musings about the firmament. To be insistently metaphorical is one thing; to be insistently metaphorical while repeatedly explaining those metaphors is something else. Pamuk is forever afraid his reader isn’t paying attention. The marshaling of myth can make for dynamic storytelling, but Pamuk is too frequently a stranger to the potency of nuance, to the furtive unfoldings of character and plot. The real trouble here is the translator’s prose. Ekin Oklap’s incessant reliance on dead language does great injury to Pamuk’s already damaged tale ... What you’ll have to decide is whether Pamuk has penned the Sophoclean tragedy he aimed for or just another Turkish melodrama.
...the first half of the novel [is] allusive, enchanting and perfectly controlled ... Haunted by his past, Cem grows obsessed with ancient tales of patricide and filicide, particularly Oedipus Rex and the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab from the Persian epic the Shahnameh. Whole chapters are devoted to recondite scholarly investigations, à la Umberto Eco, to unpack the hidden meanings of these texts. When a real estate opportunity returns Cem to Öngören, Mr. Pamuk forces an inevitable reckoning with the red-haired woman and others who know what he did at the well, contriving events so that they mirror those of the famous stories. This, combined with a late-occurring narrative switcheroo, makes it impossible to discern what in the story has been the result of Cem’s actions and what has 'been dictated by myth and history.' An enticing book cedes, in the end, to storytelling at its most pointlessly rococo, the kind that invariably seems more fun to dream up than to read. Mr. Pamuk’s postmodern tricks may make him appear contemporary, but it’s when he’s being old-fashioned that his writing is most vital and alive.
The Red-Haired Woman doesn't approach the heights he has reached in those previous books, but at its best, it does reaffirm his reputation as a skilled writer ... With the exception of the book's final section, The Red-Haired Woman is often plodding and occasionally ponderous. Pamuk spends a lot of time explaining how well-digging works — he's clearly done his research — but it gets to be a bit much ... That's not to say The Red-Haired Woman doesn't have redeeming qualities. The last section of the book — the only one not written from Cep's point of view — is genuinely shocking, and it forces the reader to reconsider everything that came before. It's not quite enough to save the book, but it does serve as a fascinating coda ... The Red-Haired Woman is far from perfect: It's a minor work from a major author. Fans of the Nobel Prize winner may well find much to admire here; for those unfamiliar with his novels, it's inessential.
Ostensibly, this is a novel that explores father/son themes, but Pamuk insightfully ends by including what’s missing from both Eastern and Western accounts — a woman’s voice. Switching to the triangulating narrative voice of Gülcihan allows Pamuk to sustain both foundational myths at the same time. In the end, Pamuk’s revision gives authority (and authorial voice) to the woman, who usurps the place of the father ... On one hand, The Red-Haired Woman is a novel that celebrates characters who are Oedipalized into the modern neoliberal order. On the other hand, while that celebration exposes familial violence, it conceals a concomitant history of state violence that maintains the patriarchal order. As modern Turkish history reveals, the political father — whether the erstwhile secular founder Atatürk or the current Islamist President Erdoğan — rules like Rostam rather than Oedipus. The success of this novel, subtly staged, is that it allows us to consider how these ideologies might coexist.
Fathers and sons just can’t get it right in this somber tale crammed with references to the story of Oedipus and its linked opposite, the Iranian national epic Shahnameh, in which a father unknowingly kills his son ... The novel has Pamuk’s customary wealth of atmospheric detail about his beloved Istanbul and the perennial conflict in Turkish politics (and in the Turkish soul) between secular modernism and traditional values. It’s also ham-fistedly obvious and relentlessly overdetermined; Pamuk seems to be trying for the stark authority of folklore and myth, but the novel’s realistic trappings don’t comfortably accommodate this intent. There are some bright spots: Pamuk paints a moving portrait of Cem’s childless marriage, and a searing final monologue by the red-haired woman very nearly redeems the flawed narrative that precedes it. A disappointment, though no book by this skillful and ambitious writer is without interest.
While Cem’s consideration of these stories initially drives the novel, by the end of the book, the contemplation of fatherly themes feels heavy-handed and the story devolves into predictable, almost melodramatic myth. Pamuk’s power continues to lie not with the theatrical but with the quiet and the slow.