“The past lives within the present, and our ancestors breathe through our children.”―
The Bastard of Istanbul reads almost like a a historical fiction. Elif Shafak has drawn the most eloquent family tree of two families and then interconnected them vis-a-vis a shared culture and history. She has deftly folded history into fiction with such graceful deception that one is mesmerized from the word go, often wondering how much of it is real.
Title: The Bastard of Istanbul
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Family Drama
Publisher: Viking Adult
My Rating: 4 stars
Author: Elif Shafak
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“If you cannot find a reason to love the life you are living, do not pretend to love the life you are living.”―
We have Asya, a 19 year old Turk living in Istanbul with 3 older generations of her family comprising of three aunts and her mother who is the youngest sister. There there is her grandmother and her mom’s grandmother, There is also a mention of an uncle Mustafa who left home some twenty years ago and immigrated to the US to never return again.
At 19, Zeliha becomes pregnant much to the horror of her family. She refuses to tell her family who the man is and goes off on her own to get an abortion. But once at the clinic she is unable to do so and returns home to have and raise the baby. While her three sisters comprise of a psychic, a history teacher and an overzealous feminist, Zeliha is the rebellious one who is happy running a tattoo studio in the heart of Istanbul.
Strangely Asya calls her mother Zeliha aunty and both mother daughter don’t seem to share a close bond. Her mother never speaks about her father so that is a huge black hole in Asya’s life who tries to lose herself in a very strange assortment of ‘friends’that she happened to meet at the popular Cafe Kundera (so named after the famous author Milan Kundera). She lives in a self denial mode about the past and hides behind her existential philosophy of life.
“Mourning is like virginity. You should give it to the one who deserves it most.”―
Armanush is a child of two worlds having been born to an American mother and Armenian father whose ancestors moved to the US when the genocide happened. She finds solace in an online chat room which mainly comprises of the children of survivors and where everyone chats under an assumed identity. She also spends her life shuttling between her divorced parents who live in different American cities. Her father lives in SF and his family consists of his sisters and uncles and mother -all of whom try to instill the Armenian ways into her, including a love for the cuisine. At the same time they whisper of their bitterness towards the Turks who they consider to be the root of Armenian people’s troubles.
Her mother Rose who lives in Arizona, initially flirts with a Turk- Mustafa (post her divorce) to annoy her Armenian MIL but later falls in love with him and marries him. Its another matter that Mustafa lives in complete denial of his Turkish roots and hardly ever mentions his family in Istanbul. The only son among four sisters, he was certainly doted upon with great expectations from him. But to ward off the evil eye, he was parceled off to the US where he chooses to stay to never return to visit his family even once.
“Family stories intermingle in such ways that what happened generations ago can have an impact on seemingly irrelevant developments of the present day. The past is anything but bygone.”―
Now the two worlds collide when Armanush decides to sneak off to Istanbul for a visit and chooses to stay with her stepfather Mustafa’s family where she meets Asya. The two girls exchange world views, music tastes, friends and come to share a friendship while traversing the sights of Istanbul. The historic events of the past concerning the Turks and Armenians also come to a head and they both realize how much is fact and fiction.
Asya’s oldest aunt Bano has chosen a life of a seer and captured two djinns to help her see into past and future of people who consulted her. She alone knows who Asya ‘s father is and regrets finding out the truth. She once again delves into the past with the help of one of her genies and is aghast to realize the connection between the Kazanci and Tchakmakchian family.
The final blow comes when Mustafa and Rose travel to Istanbul to bring back Armanoush. The Kazanci household is thrown in a tizzy to welcome the guests but there is more lurking beneath the surface.
What I liked:
Each chapter of the book is named after an ingredient of the famous Turkish dessert Ashure and that itself ties down the entire story in a bittersweet narration. In this largely female dominated story, there is one man Mustafa who could have been the center of the tale had he not chosen to seek oblivion from his past by hiding out in the present. Ashure was his favorite dessert in which he sought sweet salvation from all of his childhood torments. Its this dessert that results in his downfall in the end.
I also loved the way the cuisine has been talked about with great flavor and texture in the narration. I could visualize the preparations and certainly wanted a bite of it all.
The women are all strong and self-reliant with some amazing contrast in their belief systems. Yet they remain bonded for life and that was really lovely to read.
The anecdotes of real time history woven into the fictitious tale makes for a zesty reading while the seductive background of the city of Istanbul stands out vividly as a character of its own.
What I didn’t like:
The narration has a very jerk fast action in some places and extremely lethargic in other places. That’s my only crib from an otherwise rich and lively familial dama.
I have given this one a 4/5 star rating and would recommend it to all of Elif Shafak’s fans for sure.
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