three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
27-Mar-Apr-2007
By: 
Elif Shafak
user_rating: 
0

A-The Bastard of IstanbulIn her second novel published in English, Turkish author Elif Shafak examines the effects of censorship on individuals, families, and nations. Teenager Asya Kazanci listens to Johnny Cash, reads Sartre, and lives with her eccentric family in Istanbul. Born out of wedlock to the Westernized Zeliha, Asya knows nothing about her father and, consequently, feels as if she doesn’t completely know herself. Meanwhile, her Uncle Mustafa’s Armenian-American stepdaughter Armanoush has become obsessed with the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish authorities in 1915. Armanoush travels to Istanbul to learn more of the genocide, but she finds that history has been rewritten. As each girl struggles to define herself, worlds collide, old secrets emerge, and lives change forever.
Viking. 368 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670038342

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s as much family history as national history that drives this vital and entertaining novel. And it’s the powerful and idiosyncratic characters—beginning with teenage Zeliha in a miniskirt and tight-fitting blouse, and pregnant out of wedlock, on her way to get an abortion in an Istanbul summer rainstorm—who drive the family history." Alan Cheuse

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"[Shafak] is so intent on illuminating the tragedy of the Armenian genocide and the injustice and psychic harm wrought by its denial that she does slip into soapbox mode now and then. Because of her skill and intensity, however, such authorial intervention … doesn’t detract from the reader’s appreciation for her complex characters and many-faceted plot." Donna Seaman

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"Shafak writes powerfully of war (cultural and familial), of peace and of the meaning of moral fortitude. She possesses a steady hand when it comes to creating strong female characters, and her vivid descriptions of the charms of Istanbul serve to lure the traveler better than any pitch from a tour company." Patricia Corrigan

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Shafak dives into the genocide itself, with the story of Armanoush’s relative Hovhannes Stamboulian, an intellectual and children’s book writer abducted and killed by the Turkish authorities, but she is uncertain in such foreign territory (a disease that creeps into Bastard’s American sequences as well), and the subplot is a rare misstep in this otherwise assured novel." Saul Austerlitz

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It is an odd, not always successful hybrid: a serious novel of ideas with characters that at times seem borrowed from a sitcom soundstage and a plot founded in dark family secrets unearthed in high soap-operatic fashion. … She stuffs more into this novel than her often hastily sketched characters can carry." Ben Ehrenreich

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"In this new book, she has taken on a subject of deep moral consequence. But is the work worthy of its subject? … When the novel’s skeleton finally dances out of its flimsy closet, it’s clear that although Shafak may be a writer of moral compunction she has yet to become—in English, at any rate—a good novelist." Lorraine Adams

Critical Summary

Reviewers opined differently about the success of The Bastard of Istanbul. Most praised the novel’s oddball characters and magical realism as a counterbalance to the horrors of violence and war; others felt that such irreverent portrayals gave the darker subject matter a cartoonish aspect. All agreed that Elif Shafak’s clear prose and lush descriptions allow Istanbul to emerge as a character in its own right. In an example of life imitating art, Shafak was charged, though acquitted, with "denigrating Turkishness"—a violation of the Turkish penal code—for her in-depth account of the mass murder of the Armenians. If not uniformly praised, Shafak’s defiant novel is a brave, complex study of how the past can completely overshadow the future.