Book club: The Bastard of Istanbul

Elif book cover one

Set in Istanbul and Arizona, switching between the past and the present easily, with a good Djinn and a bad Djinn helping the story along, this sometimes dark but perceptive novel is a rewarding read.

Asya and Armanoush explore the streets of Istanbul, unaware of the secrets lurking in their shared history, while the cast of mostly female characters countdown the short life spans of their male counterparts.

The descriptions of Turkish and Armenian food left me curious and hungry, and the portrayal of the diversity of Turkish women, who often share the same upbringing but end up on different ends of the religious and cultural spectrum, was revealing.

The contradictions between the 7 ladies living in Istanbul is enough food for the imagination, with half of them sticking to their secular beliefs while the others hold on to Islam with equal fervour, both sides managing to live harmoniously and lovingly under one roof.  Four generations of Turkish women, supporting each other and driving each other crazy while history unfolds.

Stories of the Armenian plight in Turkey spur the action, as the half-Armenian Armanoush returns to Turkey to learn more about her family’s past before they were forced to flee to America for the hope of a better life.  She hopes to find her grandmother’s old house, and a piece of her own identity in the process.  Living with being half-American and half-Armenian, Armanoush hopes to put together the pieces of her sometimes conflicting identity to better understand her place in the world.

What Armanoush does not expect is that while the Armenians have internalised and lamented over their troubled history with the Turks, it seems that the Turks have all but forgotten that there ever was any issue between the Turks and Armenians, a fact that seems to enrage slighted Armenians even more.  Why won’t the Turks just own up to their ill treatment of Armenians and offer an apology?  But can we expect Turks living in a new and different Turkey to pay for the sins of their forefathers?

Of the 4 sisters living in the Kazanci household in Istanbul, Aunty Zeliha with her short skirts and wild hair seems to be the centre of the action, having borne the “bastard” daughter that the story is named for.  But it is actually her sister, the Hijab-wearing soothsayer Banu who holds true power.  Having somehow managed to enslave a good Djinn and a bad Djinn, she tortuously uncovers secrets from the buried past that may have best been left alone.  The lure of knowledge is often too great, without the cost of knowing being weighed.

The issue of histories forgotten, overlooked, relived, remembered and held onto is a big theme, with the question at its centre: should history be forgotten and should we move on?  What purpose does re-hashing the past endlessly, serve?  Can a nation apologise for its past mistakes, and can that apology have any true meaning or impact?

This Turkish author does a great job of exploring big issues while still weaving an enjoyable story, peppered with colourful characters and dripping with delicious descriptions.

Shafak says that she wrote the book in English, even though her native tongue is Turkish, because it allowed her to distance herself from the past of her country, and the cultural baggage that comes with that.  It’s interesting that she gets a professional translator to then translate her work back into Turkish, before she rewrites the Turkish version herself.

I rarely adhere to the clichéd advice about not judging a book by its cover.  If a book has an awesome cover, I generally take a look.  If the cover looks boring, I often skip it.  Luckily, penguin publishers has a colorful set of covers for Turkish author Elif Shafak’s books, which lured me into peeking inside (and then buying) one.  Guess it’s time to go and look for some more.

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