The Bastard of Istanbul is Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s sixth novel and the second one written in English. I bought this book on a whim, being new to Turkish authors I decided to give it a chance, it’s always good to explore various authors from different cultures and their works and needless to say this book was definitely a page turner.
The Bastard of Istanbul is set in The United States and Turkey. It is the story of two families; one Turkish family living in Istanbul and one Armenian family residing in San Francisco.
One of the reasons that made me want to read this book was because Elif Shafak is an ardent feminist so it’s not all that surprising to find that her book is female oriented. And the one male character throughout the book we meet, Mustafa, is more of a symbol than a character.
Throughout the beginning his name is only mentioned here and there a few times only to fit the narration but never has any real significance. Then we are introduced to him as a college student as he stands in a supermarket in Arizona and there he meets and later marries an American woman who has recently divorced her Armenian husband. His new wife, Rose relishes in the fact that her second husband is a Turk and that her baby daughter will be raised by a Turkish step-dad all for the pure pleasure of infuriating her Armenian in-laws.
This baby daughter, Armanoush grows up to be nothing like her family. Beautiful and bookish she endures constantly shifting between her American mom and Turkish step-dad in Arizona and her Armenian father and grandmother in San Francisco and trying to keep peace between her two families. Shafak has depicted these Armenians as totally anti-Turk and very protective of their precious Armanoush. Instead of exploring her Armenian roots through her family especially her grandmother whom she know was a survivor, Armanoush joins a chat group with Armenian-Americans online dedicated to discussing intellectual topics including the genocide. Then, feeling that she has no one to talk to and that if she wants to know what really happened she must delve deeper she decides to visit her step-dad’s Turkish family in Istanbul. She flies to Istanbul alone and keeps her mother and father ignorant of her plan.
The family Armanoush encounters in Istanbul is a confusing, jumbled up four generations of women that includes; a great grandmother riddled with Alzheimer’s, an angry and distant grandmother and her four daughters and a granddaughter. The eldest daughter is a self-made clairvoyant, the second one is a high school teacher, the third one is schizophrenic who lives in a fantasy world of her own and the youngest one is unlike the rest of the family with a rebellious nature and running a tattoo parlour, also she has an illegitimate daughter. Her name is Asya and she is the bastard of the title. Soon Asya and Armanoush form a close bond.
Armanoush’s visit was initially meant to find her Armenian grandmother’s childhood home to help her learn of her origins and her grandmother’s traumatic past but unknowingly her visit takes a turn for the worst. The clairvoyant sister curious about their guest’s family history takes help from an evil djinni and ends up uncovering a terrible secret of her own family; the truth about Asya’s father.
The book takes an unexpected twist towards the end which will only make you grip it harder and turn the pages faster. We learn how Shafak symbolizes Mustafa’s character as Turkey’s genocide.
All in all The Bastard of Istanbul makes you intrigued about reading more of Shafak’s works and it has plenty of memorable lines, my favourite being –
“Because time is a drop in the ocean and you cannot measure off one drop against another to see which one is bigger and which one is smaller”