Posts Tagged ‘Elif Shafak’

Some of you may remember that a few months ago I subscribed to the Books that Matter boxes. It is a lovely feminist themed box each month – a well-chosen book with three themed gifts. The only reason I have let my subscription lapse is because I have so many books – and the danger with a feminist book box is that I get a book I have already got or read. In fact, that only happened once out of four boxes – so it could have been worse. The Bastard of Istanbul was in the third of my four boxes – and it was a book I was very pleased to receive because Elif Shafak is an author I have wanted to read for years. I heard her speak once at the Birmingham Literature festival (remember attending actual events in person!) and I loved the sound of her work. Now I am left wondering why I left it so long to read her.

The Bastard of Istanbul is a novel of modern Turkey – but with a beautiful, poignant acknowledgement of its history, and the different peoples who make up its population.

“That was the one thing about the rain that likened it to sorrow: You did your best to remain untouched, safe and dry, but if and when you failed, there came a point in which you started seeing the problem less in terms of drops than as an incessant gush, and thereby you decide you might as well get drenched.”

As the novel opens, a fiercely modern, rather rebellious young woman walks through a rainy Istanbul to an appointment at a clinic. When she arrives, she demands for all to hear, that she needs an abortion. She is nineteen and unmarried.

Twenty years later, Asya is also nineteen, growing up in a house full of women. The men of the Kazanci family all dying in their forties – succumbing to a mysterious family curse.

In this house of women there is Asya’s beautiful, mother Zeliha, who runs a tattoo parlour and still wears the short skirts of her rebellious youth; her sisters; the headscarf wearing Banu, a clairvoyant; who discovers secrets from her djinn, Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster and Ceveriye a high school teacher. The older generation made up of Asya’s grandmother Gülsüm and Petite-Ma – who had been the stepmother of Gülsüm’s husband. Aside from a succession of cats, the only male member of the family, Mustafa left for America years earlier to escape the family curse.  

“It is so demanding to be born into a house full of women, where everyone loves you so overwhelmingly that they end up suffocating with their love; a house where you, as the only child, have to be more mature than all the adults around….
But the problem is that they want me to become everything they themselves couldn’t accomplish in life…..
As a result, I had to work my butt off to fulfill all their dreams at the same time.”

Asya – has a difficult relationship with her mother – and from a young age has called her Aunt Zeliha – in a house full of aunts it was easier for her, she little knows how this hurts her mother. She is a young woman full of questions about Turkey and the past. She listens to Johnny Cash and is a regular at the café Kundera, where regulars gather and discuss all kinds of political and philosophical questions. Here she meets up with an interesting group of intellectual acquaintances including an alcoholic cartoonist with whom she is having an affair.

In Arizona, Mustafa lives a quiet life with Rose, his wife, and his step-daughter Armanoush. Rose had previously been married to an Armenian-American man from San Francisco – so Armanoush has grown up dividing her time between the two families, in which life in very different. Her Armenia family is large, noisy and loving, and sometimes overwhelming. Now an online forum is teaching Armanoush all about the long Armenian/Turkish conflict, the reason for the resentments one side of her family still have for Turkish people. Armanoush feels that the only way she can really begin to develop an understanding of her heritage and her family’s past is to pay a visit to Istanbul. So, without the knowledge of either her San Francisco or her Arizona families – she arranges to pay a visit to her step-father’s family in Istanbul. The Kazanci women are delighted – and excitedly begin to prepare for their American visitor.  

“There is no together anymore. Once a pomegranate breaks and all its seeds scatter in different directions, you cannot put it back together.”

I don’t want to say any more about the actual plot – but this novel delves deeper into the Armenian/Turkish past of Istanbul and both these families in such a clever and touching way. The novel becomes increasingly hard to put down as all the threads of past and present start to weave together. This is a novel with many layers, beautifully written, philosophical, and often lyrical. I loved it.

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