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The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak Explores Human Issues in a Closed Culture

Updated on October 15, 2014
Photo copyright Darwinek via Wikimedia Commons
Photo copyright Darwinek via Wikimedia Commons

For the last century or more, relations between Armenians and their one-time Turkish oppressors have been strained...a fact which constantly comes into play when the lives of two teenage girls intersect. In the beginning Zeliha, a gorgeous, outgoing, and unconventional Turkish woman checks in to an abortion clinic. Under anesthesia, however, Zeliha screams and cries and carries on until the doctors decide that the abortion should not be done, and so Asya is allowed to be born into an all-female household in Istanbul surrounded by her “Aunties.” While the family is very closely-knit, Asya has never met her uncle Mustafa, who 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 those around her. 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 as well as get a sense of the current state of Armenian-Turkish relations, which she and her internet friends are convinced will be quite terrible.

This book attracted my attention during an afternoon outing to the library 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 attached, those kinds of books seem to be dying out as 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…and I was certainly not disappointed.

This is the first book I have ever read by Elif Shafak, being as English is the only language I know well enough to enjoy reading for any length of time, and I was immediately swept away by the lively, memorable characters and the detailed atmosphere. Shafak immediately transports readers into the bustling streets of Istanbul, craftily tying in details about the sights, smells, local dress, and reactions of passersby to the activities around them while building the description of the central characters. Such characters they are! Nearly every person in this story stands out from all the rest, and by the end of the book any reader will feel that they know them all well. The household described is full of women from three generations, and including everyone from the unorthodox, seductive woman whom readers may believe they have worked out from the very beginning to 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.

Shafak’s story stands very well on its own as an intricate tale of family secrets and traditions, but intertwined with that are 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. Overall, this is an excellent story based on cultural and generational relations that can speak to many readers, regardless of individual backgrounds or life stages.

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