Book review: “The Bastard of Istanbul” for Elif Shafak

I have never been to Istanbul. The Bastard of Istanbul, through its pages, took me there. I first read the French translation when I was younger and did not really grasp its significance as much as I did now, re-reading it in English.

Elif Shafak, in The Bastard of Istanbul, writes a story of two families, one Armenian and the other Turkish; specifically, two girls — one Armenian and the other Turkish. Armanoush is a 19-year old Armenian-American girl from Arizona, her biological father is Armenian and her step-father is Turkish. To understand the meaning of being Armenian and try to resolve her identity crisis, she moves to Istanbul to live with her step-father’s family — the Kazanci family. This event opens a new world for Armanoush and takes her on a journey to self-discovery. Why would a 19-year old girl travel to Turkey to discover her Armenian roots ?

Istanbul is a city of contrasts. It’s a city of old and new, big and small, colors, smell and of course, history. In this beautiful city full of contrasts is a house, and in this house are four sisters and a bastard girl, Asya. None is like the other; in fact, they are very very different women. As Asya tries to cope with her own problems of being a young-woman, her life changes when young Armanoush moves into their house. They become instant friends. Beyond this friendship though, lies a dark and sad truth — the Armenian Genocide of 1915. We can thus see the 100 year old rift between the Turks and Armenians re-emerge in different ways through this relationship, throughout the book. Asya is initially indifferent to this topic when Armanoush brings it up… but gradually, the question of responsibility, guilt, forgiveness and remorse become centre-stage. Shafak is an amazing writer who speaks of the future. She insists that though the past cannot be changed, the future can. I saw innocence. I saw fear and sadness in these pages. Yet, I saw dried figs and tasted them. I heard cars honking while stuck in traffic. I walked through the colorful and historic streets of Istanbul.

I wonder if being from the region originally and being Armenian myself, helped me see the book differently, from say, someone who is not knowledgable of Turkey, Armenians or the Genocide. I’ve been actively thinking of going to Turkey for a month or two, for some time now; to re-connect with my roots, not very different from Armanoush’s experience.

I have read a lot about the Armenian Genocide from a historical perspective, but never in a fiction novel, and I loved it ! This book made my heart melt. So beautifully written with rich and exaggerated characters, places and events. Make no mistake, the Armenian Genocide is not the only theme of the book, but it is what I admired most about it. I wonder how other Armenians would react to this book with respect to the events of 1915, as Shafak doesn’t go into details about it, but rather wants to portray it as a sad and unfortunate period in time. She wants, us, Turks and Armenians to have a conversation. She does not impose her views on us, but instead wants us to reconcile. This book got Shafak almost landed in prison for “denigrating Turkishness” — because, the Armenian Genocide is a taboo topic in Turkey. Luckily, she was acquitted.

I have so much respect for writers who break down barriers and seek to build bridges instead. I also admire strong and determined women-writers.

All in all, The Bastard of Istanbul is one of my all-time favorites. I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up reading it again sometime in the near future.

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