From the outside inKarin Lock reviews Keeping the House by Tice Cin
It’s funny how we’re watching things change, but from the outside”. Tice Cin’s lush debut Keeping the House suggests that being ‘outside’ is a vantage position. Being ‘out’ is to be detached, a place from where you can observe, analyse, reflect. But being ‘in’ is where the action is: you belong, you have a role, a part to play in the unfolding drama.
Keeping the House is a family saga, a tale of lost innocence, a plot about growing cabbages. It is a sensual trip through the Tottenham landscape from NPK (Northumberland Park) to Green Lanes, with detours to Turkey and Northern Cyprus. It is a journey of female empowerment inside a funny tense crime thriller (where names have been changed to protect the innocent).
Damla is our first guide. From a young age, she babysits her siblings and grandma, ‘keeping the house’ whilst her glamorous mother Ayla works. Her father is absent; his name and whereabouts not revealed. Cooking is Damla’s responsibility, and she hungrily collects recipes from family and friends. She also hangs out with her bestie, the confident Cemile, who flirts dangerously with the Broadwater Farm boys.
Tottenham is a place where kids grow up fast, and discretion is advised: “Careful, when you turn your eyes towards someone, you allow them the chance to turn theirs on you”. Damla is beautiful, smart and discreet. She has been taught that, for young women from her community, only “the ones who stay pure pave a jewelled path to marriage”.
Damla’s mother Ayla has strayed from the path. Her skinny, sleepy-eyed lover may have shaky hands and sallow skin, but he was “a sophisticated chip and milkshake buyer who really knew London”. Newly arrived in the city in 1986, naïve and lonely Ayla falls for a guy she hardly sees. Away from her work and caring/ domestic duties, she parties hard at the Mud Club, or a local blues dance; the music is her sanctuary.
Frequently switching narrators, the author follows this matrilineal line across three generations. She maps poetry-loving Ayla’s teenage years in Cyprus where “the procession of tanks…inhabited the daily rhythm of school life”. The 1974 war, loss, displacement, and agricultural labour have all impacted on the health of Ayla’s mother Makbule. Moving to Tottenham is a new start, a chance to plant and “block out the world”.
Once the book’s central dilemma has been established, the writer begins to explore the characters’ strengths and vulnerabilities. One central motif is forgiveness; another is how protection can often mean control. Exploring these behaviours invites the possibility for change: “You have to do the right thing even if you upset people sometimes”.
It may be fiction (with the odd urban myth) but Keeping the House showcases actual local history. Infamous bygone venues like the Swan, Ritzy and Eros nightclub are namechecked; and legendary incidents retold. This is the novel’s magic: the ability to retell the past with its sounds, smells and tastes. For some, the book’s multi-narrator format (and multilingual notes) might feel like hard work, but for this reader it feels like a walk down Tottenham High Road in all its polyglot magnificence.
Tice Cin is a local artist whose expertise covers film, art, poetry, DJ-ing and music. A graduate of Barbican Young Poets and London Writers Awards programmes, her interdisciplinary approach is refreshing (there is an EP and photographs to complement the book). As one character insists: “making art is a place of safety – where the artist has the possibility of ‘home’”. With Keeping the House, Cin adds to that debate by putting one of north London’s key communities centre stage in a sensitive and intimate way.