One rainy afternoon in Istanbul, a nineteen-year-old, unmarried woman walks into a doctor’s surgery. ‘I need to have an abortion,’ she announces.
Twenty years later, Asya Kazanci lives with her extended family in Istanbul. All the Kazanci men die in their early forties, victims of the mysterious family curse, so it is a house of women. Among them are Asya’s beautiful, rebellious mother, her clairvoyant aunt and their hopelessly hypochondriac sister. Into the midsts of this madhouse comes Asya’s feisty American cousin, and she’s bringing long-hidden family secrets connected with Turkey’s turbulent past in her wake…
Deciding to expand my literary horizon a little and picking a book by a Turkish author, I was immediately fascinated by Elif Shafak’s writing. The Bastard of Istanbul gave me several haunting new insights into a variety of topics. The novel discusses the effects of the Armenian Genocide with care and compassion, making an effort to show how it is approached by both a Turkish and an Armenian American community. Simultaneously, it tells the stories of a Turkish teenager who reads philosophy and only listens to Johnny Cash, a clever American teenager in search of her past and three very different but equally intriguing sisters. Through their stories, Shafak weaves a complex pattern of family secrets in the Kazanci household. It is a testament of her skill as an author that this number of topics did not distract or puzzle me, but rather made the novel so rich, life-like, and moving.
I read most of the novel on five-hour train rides, and I do think that helped me get into it more. The first six chapters (120 pages) each introduce a new character and though they all paint rich and interesting pictures of lives and family dynamics, it felt as if this postponed the actual start of the story. This is unfortunate, as when the story really took off from chapter 7 onwards, I could hardly put the book down.
Shafak’s writing style is graceful and captivating. An omniscient narrator tells the story in the past tense, but every so often pauses the story and addresses the reader directly, painting a picture of a scene in the present tense. This suggest the constancy and beauty of Istanbul, and indicates that it is not only the backdrop of this story, but also of many others. It reminds you that the fictional story you’re reading takes place in a very real city. The descriptions of people are witty and sharp, but also show that Shafak truly cares for the characters she describes. Moreover, the work is full of enjoyable mood-setting details: for example, each chapter is named after a food.
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