As I write this, it is being announced on the radio news that Ratko Mladic has been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, for his orchestration of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where as many as 8,000 Bosnian muslims were killed. It is ironic then that my book review this week concerns a novel, at the heart of which lies the Armenian genocide of 1915. It is believed that up to 1.2 million ethnic Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16. A few thousand managed to escape, mostly to America. This atrocity is considered to be the first genocide of the twentieth century and led ultimately to the establishment of the concept of ‘genocide’ in international law after World War II, which was considered at length by Philippe Sands in his book East West Street, which I reviewed here last year after it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.
The Bastard of Istanbul is a curious book, which my fellow book club members found disappointing. At the heart of the novel is the Kazanci family, living in Istanbul. The household is exclusively female and comprises Asya, (the eponymous ‘Bastard’) her three aunts and her mother (whom she also calls ‘Auntie’), her grandmother and ‘Petite-Ma’ who I think is her great-grandmother (more of that later, it’s part of the problem with the book). There is an uncle, who moved to America as a young man and has never returned. All the men in the family are afflicted by early death. Mustafa, the prodigal son, is in his 30s.
There is a second family to get to grips with, living in Arizona. Teenager Armanoush is the product of Rose (a southern gal) and Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, the son of an Armenian family, part of the Armenian diaspora. Rose and Barsam separated when Armanoush (also called ‘Amy’) was a toddler, and Rose then bumped into and married Mustafa (the prodigal Kazanci son). Still with me? Armanoush, curious to learn about her Armenian forebears’ early life in Istanbul, contrives to travel to the city and stay with her stepfather Mustafa’s family (the Kazanci women) without her parents knowing (they would not have approved.)
The novel opens with a bang – Zeliha, the most flamboyant and wayward of the quirky Kazanci sisters, arrives at a clinic demanding an abortion. At the very last minute, however, she does not go through with it. Enter Asya. The first half of the book is setting the scene of both Asya’s life (she is now a slightly surly teenager) and the Kazanci household as well as Armanoush’s life in the US. The second half is mainly concerned with the two young women and their developing relationship in Istanbul, and gradually the connection between them unfolds. Throughout the novel, the history of the Armenian genocide is woven in, particularly as it relates to the Turkish Kazancis and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchians.
Let me tell you what’s good about this book: I loved the sense of place – I have never been to Istanbul but am fascinated by it and by this part of the world generally and it’s on my bucket-list. I loved the characters: they are interesting and credible and the way the author builds our impression of them is beautifully done. Elif Shafak can write, and she can write with humour; there are some laugh-out loud moments, although knowing what I now do about the Armenian genocide, I’m wondering if it was fitting.
However, there are also some problems with the book, mainly it is over-written. For me, it needed some skilful editing. There is a large cast-list here and I’m afraid I rather lost track of some of the peripheral characters (Petite-Ma, for example), who are actually rather important to the story because you need to understand the ancestor relationships in order to fully appreciate the plot. There are some superfluous chunks that could easily have been stripped out and this would have given the plot lines (and later twists) greater force. Also, the historical thread, the background on the genocide, would have been given greater prominence.
The author states in the Acknowledgements that she was put on trial in 2006 for “denigrating Turkishness” with this novel (charges were later dropped). For that reason, and for the historical detail, it is worth a read, but I’m afraid, for me, it was a novel that did not quite live up to its potential.
If you have read The Bastard of Istanbul I’d love to hear your views.
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