The Woman in White, The Left-Handed Woman, The Woman on the Stairs, The Woman on the Beach… After what must be thousands of mysterious titular women espied by befuddled male protagonists in song, literature and film, few themes are more ripe for retirement. But even those still anxious for an account of an improbable, decades-long yearning for a person who could barely be called an acquaintance are likely to be disappointed by Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman.
The novel opens with a building contractor and once-aspiring author addressing readers in a mock-ominous tone, warning them against concluding that his setting down of the facts should mean that the story is behind him. ‘The more I remember,’ he says, ‘the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.’
The narrator presents himself as a young man from a middle-class family in Istanbul. His father is a pharmacist and sometime Lothario whose left-wing politics occasionally land him behind bars. Eventually he disappears for the last time, the pharmacy closes and the narrator, needing money for a crammer to excel