Posted on June 8th, 2015
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“‘Take my camel, dear’, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass’.” This wins as my favourite first line of any book I’ve read (so far, at least). “The Towers of Trebizond” was not what I expected — though, now I think of it, I am not quite sure what it was I expected. Let me think … well, for one thing, when I bought it, I thought it was nonfiction, which it is not; however, those who knew her say that much of Rose Macaulay’s own life is written into it, and that seems true. For another, the little I knew of the main character made me think that Aunt Dot would be like an English high-church version of Auntie Mame (another book and film I love). In fact, that was a superficial and not-too-accurate impression. Both aunties are bold, adventurous, over-the-top, and hilarious, and both are opportunists in their own ways. However, unlike Mame, Aunt Dot is at heart a high-minded and committed person with serious intentions in the world. And while “Trebizond” is a comedy, like Mame, it is also consistently philosophical and reflective, without being sentimental.
Another expectation I had was that I had thought the story belonged to Aunt Dot, but it is her niece, Laurie, whose tale this is, and we see and hear all through her. So, I had expected a very funny autobiography of a slightly mad middle-aged English woman romping across Turkey on a camel and getting into all manner of mischief (this happens, to be sure), while her niece tags along in the sidekick role; but what I got, in the end, was much stiller and deeper than that. The quieter voice and more introverted experiences of Laurie are a kind of anchor to Dot’s hi-jinx, and yet, the relationship between the two is more complicated than that simple description can capture. Aunt Dot has a certainty and a solidity about herself and her place in the world that young Laurie admires, but cannot achieve and which she believes may forever elude her. The heart of the book is Laurie’s narrative, played against the backdrop of a grand and romantic vision of the Turkish coast as she gallops along it, alone with Dot’s camel. (I won’t spoil the plot by telling you how and why the two become separated, because it’s the best part of the tale.)
The book, in topic and tone and sense of humour, reminds me of Barbara Pym’s writing (which is high praise). In fact, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Barbara Pym. “Trebizond” is also quite sad, in that way that Pym can be sometimes, too; but I must have been looking the other way as the plot went trotting past, because I failed to notice its heading towards a cliff until it had gone airborne. Still, everyone copes in the end, as one does when one is of a certain era and a certain class and a certain country. (I am still getting over it!)
A side effect of having finished Macaulay’s book is that I find myself eager to travel around Turkey and Armenia, circa 1956, on a dashing and deranged camel. This is why I read, of course.