In 'The Four Humors,' a woman delves into the past on a journey of self-discovery
Mina Seçkin's The Four Humors is an engrossing exploration of national identity, the meaning of family and loss, and what happens when a family hides its central secret.
Seçkin is a Turkish American writer and the managing editor of Apogee Journal. The Four Humors is her debut novel.
Sibel, the first-person narrator, is a young American woman born to Turkish parents who are refugees from political upheaval — as "being an intellectual in Tukey can be a crime." Seçkin demonstrates impressive skill weaving together the story of Sibel's extended family with the political violence that has marked Turkey in recent decades. Turkey's retraction of basic freedoms mirrors Sibel's retraction from her family and from herself over the first two thirds of the novel.
Having just suffered her father's death, Sibel travels to Istanbul to spend the summer caring for her father's ailing mother. She brings her boyfriend, Cooper — blond, blue-eyed, and wide-eyed at life in Istanbul. The couple has vague plans to attend medical school.
Once in Istanbul, Sibel is stricken with intense headaches. When her grandmother discovers her lying on the couch with a frozen lamb on her forehead, she urges Sibel to embark on a series of visits to doctors, who find nothing wrong.
In her quest for self-diagnosis, Sibel becomes obsessed with the four humors enumerated by Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician born on an island off present-day Turkey. Hippocrates believed that blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler determined character, temperament, and mood. In this framework, choler drives a calm person to rage; black bile is melancholy, and phlegm makes a person sluggish. Blood is the best humor; it "pumps you into a kind and optimistic person."
As Sibel experiences herself cycling through each of the humors, Seçkin structures the book into four sections loosely framed by them. During the first three sections, Sibel shuts down, paralyzed by grief and fear that she played a role in her father's death. She is expected to visit her father's grave in Istanbul but cannot bring herself to do so. She lies to cover up that failure, withdraws from Cooper, and spends increasing time with her grandmother watching Turkish soap operas.
Author Seçkin probes Sibel's fracturing inner life, keenly tracking Sibel's confusion. Sibel's younger sister, suffering from anorexia, joins her in Istanbul. Who is healthy and who the caretaker? The lines blur as the two watch over one another and their grandmother; and their grandmother in turn takes care of them.
The sisters unearth the secret that lies at their family's core, propelling three generations of women to center stage. These female characters are extremely well drawn, each distinct and filled with her own mystery. Grandmothers and elderly women, aunts and cousins, Sibel's mother and sister, all have prominent roles. Mouthwatering descriptions of food accompany many scenes, as women serve as both providers and secret keepers. If she is overwhelmed, Sibel is also embraced by these powerful women: "I am silent. I have questions. I wish I knew why women fought over how to be women."
With the disclosure of her family's secret, Sibel can finally begin to piece together what her deceased father never addressed. Instead of a giant negative space at the core of her being, her father, and her father's absence, shrink to more manageable size.
Sibel sees that the now-discredited humors have validity in modern-day theories of psychology and spirituality. Far from being one humor or the other, Sibel realizes that she is "full of all four humors." This realization, which accompanies her uncovered family knowledge, leads to her healing.
She says, "I know this now. I don't have a body. I am a body." Her recovery derives from a deeper understanding of her ancestry, and from her simultaneous acceptance that nothing in life is delineated as neatly as the four quadrants of the humors. "My brain is neither ocean nor earthquake. My brain is a river. There are still some sharp rocks of throb or ache, but I've evolved, like the humors did when they adapted from medical treatment to psychological therapy."
In contrast with the first three sections, the fourth section of the book, containing important revelations, moves at breakneck speed. I felt that some smoothing out of the overall pacing might have been advised. But that is a small quibble.
Read The Four Humors for an insider's travelogue of Istanbul and its volatile modern political history, and for the tastes and feel of contemporary Turkish culture. Read it too, to get to know a wonderful set of characters — women in all their flaws and generosities — and for an astute account of what it means to be an immigrant in America. Finally, read it to follow one young woman's beautifully-rendered journey into her past, so that she can wrest herself from stasis and step into her future.
Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.