For the last century or more, relations between Armenians and their one-time Turkish oppressors have been strained. This fact constantly comes into play when the lives of two teenage girls intersect. Note: There are no spoilers in this review. The details offered are all near the beginning of the book and do not reveal any important plot twists.
Zeliha, a gorgeous, outgoing and unconventional Turkish woman checks into an abortion clinic. Under anesthesia, she screams and cries and carries on until the doctors decide to stop the procedure, and so her daughter Asya is born into an all-female household in Istanbul surrounded by her “Aunties.”
While the family is very close-knit, Asya has never met her uncle Mustafa. He moved to the United States before Asya was born, and there married a woman with an Armenian-American daughter, Armanoush – who prefers to go by Amy, just in case some people might think she’s “less American” than the other girls. Prompted by other teenagers of Armenian descent in an internet chat room, Amy decides to arrange a trip to meet her stepfather’s family in Istanbul to learn more about her heritage. She also wants to get a sense of the current state of Armenian-Turkish relations, which she and her internet friends are convinced will turn out to be quite terrible.
This book caught my eye on its library shelf first because of the title, then because of the attractive cover art, and finally because of the story line. Namely, I know next to nothing about Turkish history post-1700s, and have often found historical or cultural fiction to be an excellent starting point on which to hang future study. While some novels tend to be plucked from an author’s imagination with little or no real experience, such books seem to be dying out. Increased globalization and information exchange have made it more and more difficult for people to simply make up stories. The fact that this particular author is Turkish and had only written one previous book in English gave me hope that I could glean a bit of real information from a well-crafted story about Turkey. I was certainly not disappointed, and the book has since met with high acclaim.
This is the first book I ever read by Elif Shafak. English is the only language I know well enough to enjoy reading at length, and there wasn’t much else by this author available in English when I first read the book in 2010. Prepare to be immediately swept away by the lively, memorable characters and the detailed atmosphere. From page one, Shafak transports readers into the bustling streets of Istanbul, seamlessly tying in details about the sights, smells, local dress, and the behavior and mannerisms of the passing people. She accomplishes all this while building descriptions of the central characters that are exceptionally easy to visualize, and such characters they are.
Nearly every person in this story stands out from all the rest in some unique way, leaving you feeling like you’ve met them in person within the first few chapters. The household is full of women from three generations, and includes a diverse cast of characters. There’s the unorthodox, seductive woman whom readers may believe they have figured out from the very beginning. There’s the introverted, eccentric one who assures everyone that the angel and the demon who ride on her shoulders will let her know of all important happenings well in advance. Of course, there’s the young one who works hard to find her place in the world, struggling to marry old customs and rivalries with her modern world.
Shafak’s story stands very well on its own as an intricate tale of family secrets and traditions, but she also intertwines several flavors of cultural misunderstanding and the futility of holding on to historical prejudice. Despite all of the detail, at no point does the reading bog down or the pace falter; Shafak is clearly a gifted storyteller who has learned the value of economy of words.
I can’t say enough good about this wonderful book and this amazingly gifted writer. It speaks to generational relations, cultural changes, regional animosities, the dark secrets within families and so much more. It’s a story that can speak to so many readers, and is sure to keep any reader of cultural or historical drama completely enthralled.
Overall, this book is a must-read. Shafak now has several other books on the market in English, and I daresay those are just as worthwhile to seek out and read – though don’t quote me on that just yet since I haven’t hunted them down and read them myself. They’re definitely on the wish list, as I will eagerly read anything and everything I can find from this author based on my enjoyment of The Bastard of Istanbul.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the author or anyone else tied to this book, and did not write this review to receive compensation from any such people. The glowing recommendation here is entirely my own — I very much love this book.