The Bastard of Istanbul (2006) is the third book on my travel reading list and the first to come from a country I’ve never visited. It’s author, Elif Shafak, is the most widely read female writer in Turkey, and was actually put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” when this book was released… which carries with it a potential three-year prison sentence.
Thankfully the charges were dropped, but that run-in with the Turkish authorities shows just how much power a book, and this book in particular, can hold.
The Bastard of Istanbul is populated with many intricately crafted characters, but follows two in particular. Nineteen year-old Asya: Turkish, nihilist, and daughter to four eccentric aunts. And her equally young “cousin” Armanoush: Armenian-American, outlier, daughter to one over protective mother and a houseful of Armenian relatives. The two meet in Istanbul, where their cultures clash and histories twist together in unexpected ways. Here the traumas of the past spill into the present and curses hold just as much importance as the copious traditional meals.
What I loved about this story was that, although it is so ambitiously far reaching in its historical scope, it remains very much rooted in the domestic. This is a women’s story, a story of female friendships and family ties and the many roles a woman can play. Every woman in this narrative has her own voice, her own struggles to face within the family and in society at large. It is also an inter-generational narrative, spanning decades as well as mere days.
I didn’t know anything about Turkish history going into this book, and even less about the Armenians who lived/continue to live there. This book brought the tragedies and movements of the last hundred years to such vivid life that it didn’t feel like a history lesson, nor a vehicle through which the author teaches about past atrocities and present reconciliation. It just felt like a story, a thought provoking, tragic, magic ridden story that swept me away to a city I’ve never seen.
Although her mother tongue is Turkish, Shafak chooses to write many of her works in English and this novel is no exception. I found this choice really interesting and was intrigued by the use of language and style in her writing. It is clear and full, yet the music of the sentences is different, it holds a rhythm all of it’s own. For me this enhanced the feeling of the story and proved that this is a narrative very much belonging to a non-western world.
Just be warned, there is so much mention of food in this book that I would not recommend reading it on an empty stomach. Although one frustration I did have was that there is a lot of emphasis on food without a lot of description, so often I would read the Turkish names for certain dishes and have no idea what they were eating. I certainly didn’t want to interrupt the flow by image searching every dish and snack. But maybe that’s for the best, I hate having food envy!
Over all this was a very enjoyable and poignant read which opened up a country to me in a whole new way. Plus look at that cover, it’s so beautiful!
4 out of 5 stars.