Title: The Gaze
Author: Elif Shafak
Published: July 1st 2006
Publisher: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.
In her prize-wining novel, The Gaze, Shafak explores the subject of body image and desirability. An overweight woman and her lover, a dwarf, are sick of being stared at wherever they go, and decide to reverse roles. The man goes out wearing make up, and the woman draws a moustache on her face.
The couple deal with the gaze of passers by in different ways. The woman wants to hide away from the world, while the man meets them head on, even compiling his own ‘Dictionary of the Gaze’ to show the powerful effects a simple look can have.
The narrative of The Gaze is intertwined with the dwarf’s dictionary entries and the story of a bizarre freak-show organized in Istanbul in the 1880s as Shafak explores the damage which can be done by our simple desire to look at other people. (Goodreads)
The Gaze is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Several stories, set in different times and places, each deal with different facets of the burden of being judged by one’s outward appearance. Facts and fiction intermingle in this book which is relatively short, only 264 pages, but is so packed with wonderful things that it feels like a much longer read. The build-up of the book is quite odd, because you feel like it starts in medias res, i.e. right in the middle. But as the book progresses, especially towards the end, you come to the conclusion that this isn’t the case. This isn’t your typical book with 1 main protagonist, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. It hasn’t one specific goal to be reached by the end of the book, which is why it might not appeal to some people. The story goes round in a circle, and ends up at pretty much the same point where it started. At some point it looks like the separate stories are beginning to overlap, but this is only briefly hinted at and not pursued any further. It’s up to the reader to fill in the gaps that link the stories, if there are any. The main message that the book carries out, in my opinion, is that everyone is judged by their outward appearance to some extent. Everyone, even the most open-minded kind of people will have a spark of prejudice inside them, even if they don’t realise it. It is something that is so inherently human that we can never break free from it completely. It doesn’t have an ending, which is the reason why the book doesn’t have a clear ending either.
What I like about the book is that it forces the reader to think long and hard about prejudices, and the easy manner with which we pass judgement on other people. To do this you don’t need any words, just a simple gaze will do. I am not a judgemental person by nature, but still the book and its characters stayed with me for a long time after I’d finished reading, and I found difficult to snap out of it. The most important thing to remember is that sometimes actions speak louder than words and that one look, one gaze can be enough to hurt someone beyond belief.