Friday, 3 October 2008

Book Review: Elif Shafak – The Bastard of Istanbul

I already had too many books to read checked out of the library, but I could not resist one more when I saw the quote on the back of this book from the reviewer at Vogue: "Heartbreaking…the beauty of Islam pervades Shafak’s book". Books from the Middle East and South Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan especially) seem to be very much flavour of the month at the moment and mostly their description of religious people are very negative (with a few exceptions) so I was curious as to how the beauty of Islam is brought alive in this book.

The story is that of two cousins: Asya, an illegitimate young Istanbulite living in a house full of women - a rebellious mother, various aunts all with their own eccentricities, a matriarchal grandmother and a very sweet, senile grandmother and Armanoush, an American Armenian woman trying to learn about her families past.

The two women are almost metaphors for the communities they hail from and their journeys reflect the journey that this author feels Turkey needs to take – towards acknowledgement of what happened to the Armenians and some kind of reconciliation and also a moving on by the Armenian community.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded bit by bit, creating links between the characters all of the time. The woman characters were a joy, especially the older women, their quirks bringing them alive, with the ones that seem the silliest at the beginning, perhaps becoming the most serious and moving by the end. In contrast the few male characters are not as well filled-out and one of the main characters, Mustapha, is especially hard to decipher.

Shafak’s affection for Istanbul slowly seeps through the book and we see the many faces of Turkey: religious, academic, westernised, patriotic socialist and traditional. One thing I loved about this book was all its talk of food. I recognised some of the dishes from my stint working in Archway in North London near a number of Turkish restaurants and cafes and it piqued my curiosity (and appetite).

BTW, if you really fancy a book about Istanbul, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is partly set in Istanbul. Although the book is about vampires and academia, its descriptions of the city absolutely enchanted me.


  1. Sounds like your kind of book sister - Love the descriptive review. Did it show Islam is a positive light?

  2. Salaams. Just what I needed, LOL: to add another book to my wanna-read list. Sounds great! BTW, I LOVE The Historian. I've read it twice and it's one of the books I won't give away and hope to read again.

  3. Assalam Alaikum! Yes, another great read...I just checked the library website and four copies are "checked in" to the library! I hope you had a great Eid InshaAllah!

  4. haha.. such a catchy title..

  5. Assalam-alaikam,

    Darling Sis,
    I think it showed Islam as diverse rather than positive, the lady with hijab was a positive character, but so was the one in a mini-skirt who drank and ran a tattoo-parlour.

    Sister Aaminah,
    I know what you mean, I have a big pile of books, and not enough time to read them, I just gave up on the wanna-read list when I realised it had no beginning or end, everything was on it.

    Sister Umm Nassim,
    Let me know what you think.

    Sis Ange,
    I know, the title does grab your attention doesn't it? I was wondering if anybody would take offence.