THE FOUR HUMORS, Mina Seçkin’s debut novel, is a deliciously bittersweet meditation on the elastic, shifting narratives we weave from the fragile threads of our daily existence, the people around us, and the places we call home. Sibel, a junior at Columbia University, is spending the summer in Istanbul to tend to her ailing grandmother, study for the MCAT, and visit her recently deceased father’s grave. The book chronicles her inability to complete any of these important tasks against the backdrop of Turkey’s political unrest, a year after the Gezi Park protests — she sits in the sultry apartment unable to do much of anything besides eat the boiled potatoes, buttered rice, and silky eggplant dishes her grandmother prepares. Stuck in front of a never-ending loop of Turkish soap operas about romance thwarted by class and social status, Sibel develops a never-ending headache that lurks somewhere deep in the back of her cranium and contributes to her sticky couch stasis. She lies to her family about going to her father’s grave. She closes herself off from her boyfriend, Cooper, who came with her from New York. And she develops an obsession with ancient medical theory, attributing her constant headache and depression to an imbalance in her humors and an excess of black bile: “The four humors that pump though my body determine my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”
Sibel blames herself for her father’s death: his heart stopped while he was boiling water for tea in their kitchen and she froze, unable to call for help. She wanders the streets of Istanbul and finds that the buildings and people mirror her misery: “Istanbul is a humor. The lubricant, oily and thick, black humor that begins to leak from my spleen. Istanbul is black bile, melancholy, only disguised as a city.” She is at a loss as to how to take care of her grandmother, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease yet doesn’t want to swallow her medication, refuses to let Sibel cook for them, and will not allow her to help with any other daily chores. Sibel eats to avoid her grief, but is unable to sate her bottomless appetite for sadness. She feels weighed down by her physical body, tethered to sorrow. She worries constantly about her sister Alara’s opposite reaction to their father’s heart attack: an eating disorder so severe her hip bones jut out from her silk pants and her hair falls out in clumps. She is caught in the snare of helplessness, not knowing how to care for anyone else, let alone herself — not knowing where to put her pain.
Mired in her syrupy sluggishness, exploring the four humors, and pretending to have visited her father’s grave, Sibel resigns herself to loneliness: “[I]sn’t it stupid that we think we can speak to people and make friends and continue friendships and have sex and grow emotionally close to other people when all that, what all that time with other people amounts to, is only a brief trip away from being alone?” As the summer unfolds and her feelings continue to go unexpressed, Sibel’s loneliness only increases, and she can sense the looks of concern over her well-being darting between the faces of her family members and friends. She is close to a breaking point: “I feel hungry and sick and I have no idea how everyone else can carry tightly sealed packages full of stories around, never to open them, and how that doesn’t make everyone else feel so fat and bloated, full of phlegm and feverish, and I am tired, I am so tired of trying to do the same.”
As Sibel’s headache and lethargy worsen, her grandmother sits down and slowly begins to talk to her — no longer about the börek she is plating, the tea she is brewing, or which soap opera character is the most attractive. Instead, she unwraps the story of her past, revealing to Sibel a heavy secret — the buried history of her dead father’s life and, by extension, Sibel’s. She begins to grasp the extent to which her parents and grandmother have kept her and Alara in the dark, and how this tendency to hide has defined the family as a whole: “I’m riding the ancient elevator, thinking of my disguises. What story am I telling myself that is so different than that of my grandmother, and even my mother, the women who won’t tell me the full story of who they are and when they became people?” Forlorn, confused, and forced to hold the weight of this secret, Sibel questions her own identity: How much of herself is American and how much Turkish? Does she love Cooper the way one is “supposed” to love their boyfriend? Does lying to her family and Cooper about visiting her father’s grave and perpetually smoking cigarettes incognito make her a “bad” person? Uncertain of everything, she is suspended in a liminal space, exploring the boundaries of her own personhood:
Descartes thought the humors made us distinctly human, and good, because what person who works to know themself, then changes based on their findings, is not a good person? Or is the person who investigates themself thoroughly, diligently, no different from the person who does not?
Eventually, she begins to let go of her obsessions: “I’m hitting a wall with the humors, I think, because they are forcing me to choose: Do I believe in constant betterment? Or do I believe that I should accept human nature — and myself — as we are, as flawed, living things that are finitely and irreparably conditioned?”
What holds these unraveling characters together is Seçkin’s precise, direct prose, which balances the grotesque with the beautiful, the funny with the genuinely moving. With lyricism and blunt, humorous honesty, Seçkin pokes and prods at the complexities of family history and personal identity from different angles. She is especially acute in describing the discomfort of existing in bodies that not only think but consume and excrete and hold weight. In one particularly vivid scene, Sibel finds her father’s dried umbilical cord stashed in her grandmother’s belongings and places it on her tongue, feeling it in her mouth, tasting and learning this piece of him as she considers all the other forever vanished parts she will never access. From Sibel’s dependance on and obsession with food to the gruesome historical medical facts about bloodletting and other ancient curative practices sprinkled throughout the text, the reader is constantly reminded that life is a physical as well as spiritual phenomenon, and that, for all their loneliness, our individual lives are part of a bigger story.