“Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.” ~Elif Shafak
Once there was, once there wasn’t…….indeed. This book is just like the Turkish dessert ‘Ashure’, a congee made with themes like ‘Humor’, ‘History’, ‘Identity crisis’ & ‘Self discovery’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Depredations of the Past’, ‘Armenian- Turkish conflict’, ‘Present day reality’, ‘Family drama’, ‘Magic-realism’ and finally sprinkled with ‘the chaotic beauty of Istanbul’. All mixed together, promising a wonderful flavor, but surprisingly under-cooked, leaving you with a strange longing in the end. Back in 2006, Elif Shafak was still finding her voice in the literary world, this book is full of her probes in different directions, but in her zeal to do justice to all the issues, she fell short of doing it to many.
Goodreads Blurb :- A novel about the tangled histories of two families. At its center is the “bastard” of the title, Asya, a nineteen-year-old woman who loves Johnny Cash and the French Existentialists, and the four sisters of the Kazanci family who all live together in an extended household in Istanbul: Zehila, the zestful, headstrong youngest sister who runs a tattoo parlor and is Asya’s mother; Banu, who has newly discovered herself as a clairvoyant; Cevriye, a widowed high school teacher; and Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster. Their one estranged brother lives in Arizona with his wife and her Armenian daughter, Armanoush. When Armanoush secretly flies to Istanbul in search of her identity, she finds the Kazanci sisters and becomes fast friends with Asya. A secret is uncovered that links the two families and ties them to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres.
This was my second book by Elif Shafak, the first one ‘Forty Rules..‘ post dates this by 3 years. Mrs.Shafak’s propensity to distill down day-to-day life’s philosophies into rules, which took the center stage in “Forty rules of love”, can be seen in this novel too, where some of the characters make up their own little check lists to deal with the world, be it Zeliha’s ‘Rules of Prudence for an Istanbulite woman’, or Asya’s ‘Personal Manifesto of Nihilism’ or the tit-bits of survival Armanoush’s grandmother tried to instill in her. These philosophical dives into the character’s thinking should have resulted in our deep understanding and/or bonding with them, finding common ground perhaps, and although not totally unsuccessful, it lacked the effect it had in ‘Forty rules..’. The problem with character development was (one.) there are a lot of them (two.) despite her tries, she failed to sketch them all in enough detail, within the right time, even at the end of the novel I was discovering new dimensions to them (Specially Aunty Banu).
The book works because it never shies away from the fact that it’s an undecided mess. Never conceding any one theme full control of the plot, and the end chapters were a rush tying it all in a sweet little bow, achieving what exactly? I was left to wonder. This makes it confusing sometimes, one moment you are dealing with the serious issue of Armenian suffering and their search for closure for the 1915 atrocities, the next a rebellious teenager trying to scratch her identity in defiance of her past, in the third you appreciate Istanbul’s complex place in the world and its paradoxical society, western values with eastern culture, agnostics and believers sharing the same roof, truly the mixture of all the world. I once read a quote somewhere, that if you had just one glance to give the world, gaze on Istanbul. The book though not primarily advocating this, hints heavily on it all the same.
And ahh the food, this was one quirk I enjoyed, all through the novel Turkish and Armenian cuisines have been described in all their glory. Making my stomach growl from time to time, thankfully I had a box of Lokum(Turkish delight) handy, which I popped in my mouth, pretending I was tasting all the dishes mentioned. From watching one of the author’s Ted Talks, I realized that the family dynamics of the Kazanci clan in the book is influenced from her personal experiences, which makes the novel more interesting.
Despite having its faults, I liked reading it. The story is fast paced, and though not satisfactorily resolving the central ‘Conflict’ issue, her advice to the Turks to shed their amnesia and to Armenians their victim-hood is a sound one. An enjoyable little read, which though trying to do much, ultimately fails in some. But its humor was on point, making me chuckle in the right places. So, read this, keeping your expectations in check, and playing Johnny cash’s songs in the background, something that I am currently engaged in.