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The Virgin's Knot 

A promising first novel about a young Turkish woman torn between her religious calling and an American anthropologist

Wednesday, Jun 26 2002
By Holly Payne

E.P. Dutton (2002), $23.95

Holly Payne's debut novel tells the tale of a young Turkish woman living in an isolated mountain village called Mavisu during the early 1950s who struggles with a creative talent that's both a blessing and a curse. Brought up to believe that "when Allah takes something from you, He gives you something in return," Nurdane, crippled by polio, understands that her ability to walk was taken away in exchange for an extraordinary gift: the power to weave magical dowry rugs considered to possess healing powers. Her tapestries have made her influential in her community, granting her a freedom and respect that other women lack. But Nurdane's skill is conditional: Allah works through her hands, so she must keep her hands pure -- in other words, she must remain a virgin. Her religious chastity is put to the test when she meets the American anthropologist John Hennessey, who comes to Mavisu in search of evidence to support a Goddess myth.

In an interview with her publisher, Payne explains the impetus for her book: "I'm not an authority on Islam or women's issues in Muslim countries; however, I empathize with these women and wrote this from a place of compassion." It's a noble proposition, but one that ultimately works against the novel. Payne's agenda, to "give voice to those women who have been silenced by Islam," sometimes takes precedence over her heroine's story. While Nurdane's dilemma is compelling, it's not exclusive to Islamic traditions; most exceptional talents come with a price tag. Payne's emphasis on romantic love also undermines her attempt to create strong female characters of substance. Though Nurdane is a tough woman, one gets the feeling that she just wants Hennessey, a sensitive Indiana Jones type who takes pleasure in bucking Muslim traditions, to gallop into Mavisu on his white horse and save her.

Despite these shortcomings, The Virgin's Knot is a promising debut. A filmmaker and screenwriting teacher at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Payne displays her moviemaking expertise in her cinematic writing style. She's mastered the primary rule all writing teachers take pleasure in drilling into novice scribes: Show, don't tell! If she can keep from romanticizing the cultures she purports to investigate, her talent will be put to better use.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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