The devastating 1999 Mamara earthquake that swept across northwestern Turkey is the catalyst for change in Alan Drew's Gardens of Water. Athough the quake only lasted for thirty-seven seconds, it ended up killing up to forty-five thousand people and leaving approximately half a million people homeless.
In the aftermath, downtown Golcuk is totally decimated.
Club-footed grocer Sinan Basioglu, and his wife, Nilufer, along with their fifteen-year-old daughter, Irem, and nine-year-old son, Ismail, are forced to live in a ramshackle tent city, faced with a Turkish government that will do little to alleviate their plight.
A deeply conservative man, Sinan is at first unaware of the more serious implications that surface when, after the quake, he becomes involved with an American director of one of the more expensive private missionary schools, Marcus Roberts, his wife, Sarah, and their tattooed son, Dylan. The Roberts have been living in the same apartment block; the night before the quake, they attended a party held by the Basioglus to celebrate Ismail's right of passage into adulthood.
This relationship is central to the dynamics that reverberate throughout this story and which eventually create a seismic shift in the way these families perceive each other. Sarah eventually sacrifices her own life so that Ismail may live. After he falls through the front of the apartment, he wakes to find himself cradled in Sarah's arms and is able to survive for three days by drinking the water that she places on his lips.
Although sorry for Marcus's loss, Sinan needs to make the American understand that the vulnerable Irem must not be seen with Dylan. The relationship has been developing for some time; on night of the quake, Dylan even tried to touch Irem. Panicked but also thrilled at the experience, Irem silently tried to pull away.
Irem cannot help but be drawn to the seductive Dylan, partly out of sexual curiosity but also because for years she's been searching for the love that her father for most of his life has been denying her, preferring to shower his attentions on Ismail. Meeting for furtive trysts at night by the seashore, Irem and Dylan begin to fall in love, Dylan promising to offer Irem a life apart from her religion, her family, and
the never-ending chaos that lies before them.
This delicate family dynamic is doomed to rupture when Sinan's role as patriarch and provider is eventually bought into question, a situation made even worse when a group of American Christian missionaries arrive to support and feed the refugees, but in reality hold far more sinister motives. Faced with an errant daughter he cannot control and now the Americans themselves, supposedly here to help, Sinan is almost at a loss to sort through the emotional baggage created years ago when he was a small boy growing up in his old childhood home of Yesilli in southeastern Turkey.
Packed with many heartbreaking moments, Drew gets right to the heart of his characters' sufferings in a hardscrabble life defined by blood, death and destruction. The author readily encapsulates the trials of Sinan as he fanatically tries to find work, forced to carry televisions through the crowded streets of Istanbul, his swollen foot aching as he walks, the weight of the televisions almost too much for him to bear.
Equally compassionate is young Irem as she is gradually torn between the affections of her young American beau and her stubborn, traditional father who absolutely refuses to let her go her own way and create a life for herself, a life defined by the Western values that he so readily despises.
Interlacing into his narrative the themes of god and death and how the dead can finally win over the living, the author paints a vivid portrait of modern Turkey and a natural disaster that shook this country to its very core, both economically and emotionally.
The novel also serves as a reminder for tolerance and understanding with its tender account of an average Kurdish man who is forced, under the most appalling circumstances, to test his enormous capacity for forgiveness.