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The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel comes with a beautiful cover depicting a braided bun of a woman with vibrant red hair. The fact that the woman’s face is unseen adds to the mystery the title evokes. In spite of the mysterious ‘red-haired woman’ in the novel, this is by far the simplest narrative by Pamuk. The novel spans across 334 pages of linear narration and makes for an engaging weekend read.


The setting of The Red-Haired Woman is in Istanbul and it’s neighbouring town Oregon. The characters are middle-class Turks with no particularly distinguishing characteristics. However, it is the premise of the narration that sets forth a chain of actions and reactions, and therein lies the entire drama.


To be honest, I was a bit flummoxed by the quotes from Oedipus Rex at the opening. These quotes, as the title and the cover image were shrouded in mystery. As the story unfolded, the strained relationship between the hero/narrator Cem and his father came to fore. The father is involved in leftist politics and is often arrested. It is also quite clear that he is seeing other women. Naturally my mind stressed on making the necessary connections with Oedipus. But there was no possibility of physical combat between father and son or even a hint of incest between mother and son. So, I waited patiently and read on.


Enter the ‘red-haired woman’ accompanied by the most fantastic premise for a story that I have come across in recent times. Cem gets a ‘summer job’ to apprentice with a well-digger. He aims to save money for his college studies as by this time his father had abandoned him and his mother. Master Mahmut is a veteran well-digger who is much sought after for his skills at digging deep wells and predicting the presence of underground water.

A wealthy man in Oregon officiates him with the task of digging a well on his land to enable him to set up a factory. Once the story moves on from Istanbul and takes Cem to Oregon, it can be divided into three sections – Cem’s experiences during the well-digging work, his life after it and the narrative of the red-haired woman.


Cem’s relationship with Master Mahmut takes on the form of a father-son relationship. Master Mahmut regards Cem as a young man with potential and tries to pass on his knowledge to him – through his work he teaches him about well-digging and through his stories he teaches him about life. Cem goes through a gamut of emotions regarding Master Mahmut. From reverence to anger, from subservience to jealousy and from treating him like a master/father to punishing him for wielding authority over him. The high point of this section of the novel comes when Master Mahmut is inside the 20-metre well, digging deeper and deeper, when an accident befalls him. Cem, the only person to help him then, runs off on a whim, leaving his master to a terrible fate. 


Even without this horrible accident and Cem’s subsequent behaviour, it is obvious that he is not a good man. When he chances upon the red-haired woman near the theatre he becomes immediately infatuated and puts his work, his phone calls to his mother and even his safety at a second footing. In spite of knowing that she is married, he continues to woo her. He also has no qualms about sleeping with her. He watches her performance although his master had explicitly forbidden him to do so. 


The red-haired woman herself is a complicated character. Although we know her name, she is referred to as the red-haired woman throughout the novel, underscoring the connotations attached to the word red. She knows who Cem is, who his father is, who Master Mahmut is and yet decides to get entangled with the teenager. As soon as Cem deserts his master, we see his infatuation for the red-haired woman lessening. In his memories she is no longer as beautiful or as charming as she had seemed at first sight. Both characters are flawed much like the pieces of jigsaw puzzle – they are flawed yet they fit.


My image of the red-haired woman came crashing down towards the end of the book, when she takes over the narrative and explains how she has dyed her hair with a special henna recipe. Everything about her appears contrived.


In the second section, Cem finishes college, marries a decent girl and has a flourishing business. They don’t have any children and Cem is reconciled with his father, too. Both husband and wife take an unnatural interest in the mythological lores of Oedipus and Sohrab and Rustom. The first one is about a son killing the father, while the second one is about the father killing the son. These intertwined tales, one from the East and one from the West, are intricately woven into the fabric of the novel. The focus is so much on father-son duos that the mothers are sadly sidelined. 


The Red-Haired Woman keeps you engrossed with its mythological references. Orhan Pamuk’s prose is as elegant as ever and the translator, Ekin Oklap, has managed to bring the elegance forth. 


The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

Published by Penguin


Other Books by Orhan Pamuk:



Kanishka Ramchandani

Kanishka Ramchandani heads the editorial unit of Beauty Launchpad magazine. She has 15 years of experience in media. She holds a post-graduate degree in English Literature. Reading fiction is her passion.