Book: The Bastard of Istanbul
Author: Elif Shafak
I’d recently finished The Forty Rules of Love and loved it. The Bastard of Istanbul was already waiting on my bookshelf.
This is the story of two girls Asya, who is Turkish, and Armanoush, aka Amy, who is Armenian American. Asya, the bastard daughter of Zehila, is brought up in Istanbul in an all-women household with her aunts, grand mom and great grand mom. Though Armanoush lives in Arizona with her mom and step father, her birth-father’s household in San Francisco is also predominantly female, quite similar to Asya’s.
Asya is the quintessential rebel. Armanoush on the other hand is a ‘good girl’. Her Armenian roots intrigue her as does the Turkish-Armenian conflict. In search of the Armenian side of her identity she makes her way to Istanbul and the two girls meet.
So what happens then? Do they connect?
Above all, there’s the secret of Asya’s birth. Who is her father? What will happen when the secret is revealed?
What I loved
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – the more I read the more I am made aware of my ignorance. I had no clue about the Turkish-Armenian conflict. I hadn’t heard of the Armenian genocide. It was horrifying yet fascinating to read about it.
The interesting bit is that the Turkish Government still refuses to acknowledge the genocide while the Armenians have never forgiven them for it. The antagonism has festered for decades.
That is why I enjoyed Asya and Armanoush’s interactions. Armanoush is skeptical of going back to Turkey, apprehensive of some kind of a violent reaction, while Asya is completely unaware of her feelings. That’s just how resentment brews till people meet each other and then it magically falls away and love and warmth take its place.
At one point in the book Asya asks Armanoush’s Armenian friend:
Tell me, what can I as an ordinary Turk in this day and age do to ease your pain?
And he replies: Your State can apologise.
Then he goes on to say: You yourself can apologise.
That conversation is one of the best parts of the book.
There are other good bits too.
If you’re looking to get to know Turkey, specifically Istanbul, this is the book for you. Shafak’s tale is rich with descriptions of busy Turkish streets. She brings it all alive from rain-filled potholes to sounds of street vendors, the famous hammams, the curious customs and above all the food – delicious glorious food. I was constantly looking up dishes and their recipes, trying out the unfamiliar names and salivating as I mentally sampled them. Do keep google handy when you read this book.
There’s a bit of magical fantasy element too, which I liked.
The beginning is slow but the book gets interesting in the second half. I loved the way the lives of the two girls entwine and the end reveals a secret so horrifying one is blown away.
What could have been better
The book opens with Zehila (Asya’s mother) trying to get an abortion. She sounds like a wonderfully colourful character and the opening completely reeled me.
Within a few pages however the book changed course. It proceeded to loose its way, getting disconnected and mixed up and the first 150-200 pages proved to be a struggle to get through. Nothing much happens and Asya’s ennui and existential angst rubbed off on me making me restless with the book. So don’t pick up this one if you’re looking for a pacy read. It isn’t.
I like women protagonists but The Bastard of Istanbul had just too many making it difficult to keep track of all of them, specially on Armanoush’s side.
Shafak also states a few ‘rules’ along the way, a bit like she did in Forty Rules, but they dodn’t come together coherently in any kind of pattern.
I wish it were a shorter book, written/edited better. Oh and I want to read Zehila’s story. She is, by far, the most interesting character in the book. It was disappointing to see so little of her.
Last thought: Take on this trip to Istanbul with loads of patience and in close collaboration with Google.