I picked this book up out of curiousity – I love Istanbul, and the title was intriguing enough to merit a quick read – and only later realised that it’s a novel that comes with much baggage. Apparently when the book was first published in Turkish, the author was sued and ran the risk of being jailed for ‘insulting Turkishness’ through her character’s words. Ultimately the charges were dropped, but not before much international outrage.
Shafak is in good company, though, as Orhan Pahmuk was also sued for discussing this genocide. It appears that, in denying the existence of holocausts and genocides, Ahmadinejad is not alone. Anyway, to a brief overview of the story. One day, a 19 year old Turkish woman walks into a doctor’s clinic to get an abortion; she then changes her mind. 20 years later we meet Asya Kazanci, 19 years old, filled with angst and anger, obsessed with Johnny Cash, and living with her enormous joint family of aunts and grandmothers (smysteriously, all Kazanci men die young or just disappear).
Across the globe, we soon also meet Armenian-American Armanoush (Amy)Tchakhmakhchain, struggling to find her place between her Armenian father and extended family, American mother and Turkish step-father. Eventually Amy decides that the only way to understand her roots is to actually visit them, and she goes to Istanbul, to stay with her step-father’s family there, the Kazancis. As she and Asya forge a tentative friendship, both come to understand hitherto hidden aspects of history, both personal and cultural and the dark secrets that bind them together.
The novel is literally littered with whimsical, colourful older women, both of Turkish and Armenian descent. There’s Aunt Zeliha, the min-skirted tattoo artist, Aunt Banu, the clairvoyant with her two accompanying djinns and Aunt Feride, with her multiple personalities. The Armenian aunts are given less prominence though, and are collectively characterised as over-protective and mired in the past. What all the aunts share, though, is their propensity to interfere in their families’ lives, while simultanously cooking vast quantities of comfort food. In comparison, the two main male protagonists, Mustafa and Barsam seem weak and insubstantial, both in character and portayal – they could almost be peripheral to the narrative for all the space they’re given to develop.
In many senses this is a very difficult book to categorize. Is it a multigenerational family novel with historical undertones? A political novel? A social satire, with its many stock characters/ cariacatures? A coming-of-age story of two young, ethnic women? A magic realism tale where djinns and middle-eastern food ingredients co-exist with Turkey’s version of The Apprentice? Or even a good old-fashioned mystery – who is Asya’s father and how are Asya and Armanoush connected? As a history buff, I was gripped by the depictions of the Armenian genoicide in 1915 – I must be honest, prior to this book I knew very little about that phase in Turkish-Armenian history – and the depiction of Istanbul as a city is both powerful and evocative.
Shafak’s tone is sometimes overbearing as she makes characters say and do things that seem, well, out of character. Many of her protagonists act and speak more as symbols than as living, breathing people, and in some cases, Shafak, weighed down by their symbolism, doesn’t even bother to give them actual names – they’re just, “Closested Gay Columnist” and “Dipsomaniac Cartoonist”, as if to portray some of the many types that abound in Istanbul. As a result, both the prose and the conversational interchanges are heavy hand and awkward in some instances.
This is by no means a perfect novel – but having said that, I found it a great read. Flaw but deeply involved, and involving.
Maya always has three books going at the same time - a different book for every mood. She loves exploring new authors, but every now and then she sinks back into the comfort of old favourites like murder mysteries and Regency romances. A corporate butterfly, Maya lives and works in Bangalore, India.
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