White on White, Ayşegül Savaş’ second novel, is, to me, a horror story. There are a few reasons why.
One is timing—I read the last pages at the end of October, when the temperature in New York dropped suddenly, punitively. No easing us in to the darkest, coldest time of the year. The novel takes place in an anonymous city, one that’s characterized by its weather, the drama of its seasons. Savaş describes the lull of late summer, the smoky blue of a winter afternoon sky, damp November mornings, “as if the city had been struck by a slow forgetting.” Not unlike the one outside my window.
I’ve also, like the novel’s unnamed narrator, invited shape-shifting figures into my life, people I now see as both monsters and ghosts. White on White is consumed with a central relationship between this narrator, a graduate student come to the city to research her thesis on nudity in Gothic art, and Agnes, a painter who rents the narrator a room in her apartment for the academic year. Agnes promises the narrator privacy, says she’ll be staying in the lofted studio upstairs only rarely. But, as is often the case in stories like this, that seemingly simple assurance hides a lie.
The two women weave around one another, increasingly share the communal space. There are cups of coffee, glasses of wine, walks through the neighborhood. The narrator is captivated by the way Agnes drapes her clothes, chooses her jewelry. “She may have been on the way to the opera or to a bookshop,” the narrator observes, “and would have been comfortable in either place. She wore no ornaments, except for a rectangular gray stone on one finger, which I noticed when she extended her hand.”
But much more lies beneath—before long, Agnes is rarely outside the narrator’s orbit, compulsively sharing confessional stories, growing in intensity and intimacy. The reader starts to ask, what lurks beneath the surface? How quickly can someone unravel? I was reminded of intentions I’ve seen turn menacing, lives I thought were stable start to disintegrate.
And there have been moments when, like the nameless narrator, I’ve become less than alive myself. Allowing myself to disappear into someone else, when they’re frenetic or selfish enough, willing to let me. It’s easy, when your own life is adrift or unstable, to lose yourself in another, for the lines between you and whoever they are, or claim to be, to blur.
Part of what can make a story truly frightening is its proximity—the suggestion, however slight, that it could happen to you, too. Or maybe it already has.
A horror story, yes, but not a one-sided or clear-cut one. The way the novel unfurls itself makes sure of that.
Savaş’ writing is subtle, elegant. Quiet, in a pathological sort of way. It inspires an uneasy feeling. What would happen, we wonder, if quiet and subtlety were weaponized?
The veneer of the language and slow rhythm of sentences magnify the growing turbulence in the apartment. What starts as cool distance between the two, then tentative fascination, turns claustrophobic.
Art and ambition play central parts in this dynamic. Both women evaluate the world and themselves in terms of creative fulfillment and success, whether that’s the narrator analyzing a sculpture of virtue triumphing over vice or Agnes stretching a canvas to her exact specifications.
Evidence of Agnes’s aesthetic and eye is everywhere—from the framed paintings in the apartment to how she arranges market-bought plums in a bowl. Before the two women even meet, the narrator visits the gallery that represents Agnes’s work, where she finds “bright paintings depicting masks, stacked one on top of the other, covering the canvas in a patchwork of shapes…The paintings’ formal restraint held back a sense of bewilderment, which I felt residing beneath the tangle of images.”
Art persists as one of the centerpieces of their conversations—the inspiration behind it, the process of it—and Agnes is always on the cusp of starting something. “’I set myself the challenge of painting only in white,’ Agnes said. ‘But I don’t know how else to continue…it may be nothing more than a gimmick.’”
While it may seem (rightly) like procrastination, any creative person will recognize these monologues as a stage in the process: describing the outlines of something before actually doing the work. Though there’s always the possibility that talk is nothing more than that—the proof comes later, or doesn’t.
The narrator is as fastidious in her research as Agnes is avoidant in her work. On a day trip to research certain religious sculptures, she decides to spend all day in the church, even napping in a pew, to see each one as the light changes from morning to evening. “Cathedrals were receptacles oriented to catch the light to greatest effect,” Savaş writes. “It was important for me to consider not just the sculptures themselves, but their various characters throughout the seasons.”
People with that kind of attention, always searching for meaning or beauty, might be more open to finding it in other strange, inviting people.
The light dims, the lens narrows.
White on White gains momentum with each encounter between its two characters. A shared vocabulary takes shape; intimacy grows; imperfections and impatience start to seep in.
Much of the novel is comprised of the stories Agnes tells about herself, at different moments in her life. They serve as scaffolding she pieces together, with the goal of presenting a considered, compelling exterior. She talks about a college friend with less artistic talent but better connections, relives her husband meeting and dismissing her parents for the first time, wonders at the cousin who, with the death of her father, retreats from life completely.
These stories swirl together, raising questions not only about Agnes and her grip on reality, but on the nature of art, longing, and human connection. The one common theme: when others demand too much from her or don’t show the appropriate mix of admiration and envy, Agnes vanishes.
As details compound and her telling of them intensifies, we get the sense that Agnes has done this before, that she sees every new listener as a new opportunity. A fresh chance for her to capture someone’s curiosity, appear to be more mysterious or fascinating than she is. She’s looking to rewrite her own history, maybe even make different choices, if only in another’s mind.
Tension builds between the two. Uncertainties take root. We’re left to wonder what thoughts might be running through the narrator’s mind as she keeps listening. Is this person lying? Am I being used? When so much is seemingly revealed, it’s a shock to learn what’s been withheld.
Both women in this novel are selfish and single-minded. But while one disintegrates, the other is voluntarily disappearing.
We rarely see the narrator without Agnes’s presence or influence, aside from glimpses of her doing her research, walking through the city, or waking from a dream. These moments feel like coming up for air after behind held down by a wave. A few seconds to catch a breath, see things clearly, prepare for what might come.
Halfway through the novel, she describes a recurring dream, one she’s been having since arriving in the city: “I heard my name called out, again and again. The voice came from a place right beside me, thought I couldn’t see the person saying it…They could have been a stranger, or someone I knew intimately. I’d wake up with a wish to call out to them.”
As the narrator embarks on her thesis research, she chooses to stray from her previous, more straightforward topic to focus on nudes. This is a shift even her advisor finds puzzling. “She found my sudden interest in nudes too hasty, and reminded me that the medieval body in art is one cloaked by drapery,” Savaş writes. ”If I wanted to study attitudes towards nakedness, she said, I would be better off focusing my attention on all the ways that the body was hidden from sight rather than revealed.”
Despite the advice she receives, the narrator is determined to pursue this more obscure, less defined course of study. Does the same insistence apply to her time with Agnes, why she keeps listening?
What is there to gain by being so silent?
I met J in graduate school, two years I spent clinging to insecurity—creative, financial, and otherwise. There were highs and lows. Too much drinking, too little sleep, and the types of decisions that accompany both.
J was equally frantic, but with an authoritative edge. We were both writers, but she was a lawyer, too. Exemplifying the driven, unapologetic, women’s college-shaped persona I wanted to wear, but didn’t think would fit. We became essential to one another. She bought us bracelets carved with an inside joke. I felt indescribably lucky to have found a patch of solid ground. She seemed flawless, made for me at that particular moment.
A and I became fast friends at 13. My family had moved far away from where I’d grown up, to a town I partially knew but would never fully claim. A understood the world I was entering, but had the right amount of contempt for it.
She was an artist, painted whatever she felt like on her bedroom walls. We turned one of her sketchpads into a shared diary, with the idea that no thought or dream or judgment should be kept from one another. And we grew up. She mocked me for always keeping boys at arms’ length. I watched her dispatch with one relationship after another, quickly moving on to the next.
But details of both connections are hazy, obstructed by phases of my life I remember only in spurts, frustratingly incomplete. Maybe this is on purpose, my mind attempting to protect me from painful specifics. But what is clear, what cuts through the static of my memory, is their strength, how much both A and J mattered to me. The ferocity with which the two of them defined my life, and how I felt when they left it.
Reading White on White, seeing the relationship between these two women imperfectly, lopsidedly grow, I thought about how memory can reflect stability, or the absence of it. The unmistakable push and pull between the state of our lives and whom we choose to trust.
Both women in this story might be primed to make the wrong decision, trust the wrong person in their own ways. As the narrator is determining the focus of her research, she explains, “nudes in medieval art appeared in moments of transition, most pronounced in depictions of the Day of Judgment…the medieval artists sculpted the naked body as they did the forms of leaves and flowers, reflecting their frailty as well as their fullness of shape.” It made me consider, are moments of transition always tumultuous? Do they always expose us as both frail and full?
With each brief chapter, Agnes’s grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous. Her carefully constructed image shows cracks that start to spread. But then again, loneliness can do that.
As Agnes’s decline intensifies, so does the narrator’s withdrawal. Though she continues to see and listen to Agnes, any trace of her former curiosity is gone. All Agnes sees is a mute, blank slate. “’I keep talking and talking,’ she said, her eyes still closed. ‘I talk and I talk and I don’t know what you’re thinking.’”
Agnes seems to ignore this one-sidedness at first, then resents it, before finally deciding to use it, and the narrator herself, as fuel.
I have been abruptly left. And have also made the choice to unequivocally leave.
A month or two after graduation, J cut me out of her life, without warning or explanation. A year earlier, after a night that left me disgusted and certain, I abandoned A with an email.
In both cases, there was no handwringing, no discussion, no laboring over what we meant or felt. The time for that, it seemed, had passed. When I ended my friendship with A, it was elation. When J disappeared, it was anguish.
The novel ends with a crescendo, a chilling revelation, as any horror story should.
The narrator finally sees Agnes’s new work, white paint on white canvas, though I won’t reveal the nature of the painting or what it comes to mean. With artistic breakthrough comes clarity, as frightening and grotesque as it may be.