Book review : The Bastard of Istanbul

I first started reading The Bastard of Istanbul because of its intricate cover and because of the connection to the Armenian genocide. I first became interested because it is written by a woman and my promise to myself, a few years ago, was to exclusively read women.

However, by the time I finished the first chapter, something else became more important: who is this woman in a short skirt, high heels, young and pregnant, taking us all over Istanbuli streets through the souks to the clinic? More to the point, what was that “dream”, the fainting, which led her to say “STOP!” to the abortion, for which she had originally came? It is also Armanoush’s sudden urge to secretly go to Istanbul, rope both sides of her family into thinking she was here or there. What pushes a person to make a sudden split-second decision?

With all these thoughts going through my head, I remember Maggie Smith’s reply on Downton Abbey: “I am a woman. I can be as contrary as I choose.” Maybe that is our original trait as women, to do one thing one minute, keep faith, then decide “Oh! How about that?” and suddenly change course. But we still do the same things, keep to the same route, and stay faithful to who we are, right? Right??

Elif Shafak paints a collage of different women in an environment of social nuances and contrasts (read the café scenes with the cartoonist & cie or Armanoush’s online chat room). Different for their decisions, different by their interactions with others, and then their reactions. For example, the Kançanzi family, where the men all die mysteriously (and all before 41…).. Why is that? A sign perhaps that men are not very powerful at the end of the day. Probably why the eldest sister, Banu, leaves her husband for more independence. But, while it is not because of violence, it is mostly for grief, the one from losing her sons and, especially, the one from the knowledge that eventually, her husband might die mysteriously.

Zehilah somehow “knew” it would be a girl; that was enough to change her mind about the abortion. Years later, I wonder if she had regrets.

Because at the end of the day, rape is domestic violence. Having a father, who poured all his childhood anger onto his children is domestic violence. Asya’s dark thoughts on her place in life and society is a possible result of this. (Yes, forgive us the spoiler.)

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. Photo ©le_chah_errant

We all live in fear of the next event, the next day, the next “mistake”. Even when we don’t think about it. It’s today’s mentality, something Shafak touches upon lightly but reminds us that, despite this “fear”, we can’t live like this. We shouldn’t. Even Armanoush ponders this concerning Baron Baghdassarian, after she arrives in Istanbul and discovers another side of the city: whether he is really worth it all. The truth is, though, you also don’t know. You can only guess sometimes and go headfirst blindly. Follow your instincts. There is no better method.

That’s what we see in the first couple chapters: instinct. We also find it later on at the end; it pushes people over the edge sometimes. Reality is tougher and we can only surmise that Asya is lucky to be accepted, at least in her family and the café group. Outside of those circles, though, she has to contend with the consequences of a violence or sin, which she did not fully understand at a younger age. It molded her into what she became. The same in a very different way, can be said of Armanoush: it molds us into what we become. As we near the end of the novel, we’re plagued with the inevitable. “But it should be different, shouldn’t it be?”, you’ll say. Yes, it should. We should be able to wear what we want, talk how we want to others. We should not have to quiver in front of our fathers and brothers (or uncles in my world).

Asya’s mother was not a victim because of her skirts or her taunting her brother.  She is a victim because of the lack of self-control, bad education, and jealousy. Yes, men can be jealous; society does treat us differently after all. Her decisions come afterwards: Asya, the tattoo parlor, even Aram. What we can admire is her style or sass has not left, a sort of boss woman. We see it in Banu, a very different kind as she is haunted by what she cannot control. At the end, her split-second decision is the outlier of all the others: it’s driven by fear and hatred. In The Bastard of Istanbul, we see karma full circle. I quite enjoyed the little devil djinn. That aside, every emotion drives us in our actions: every character is a testament to that. For us, what we feel as humans (and as women) dictates what will happen. Instinct is part of choosing; it is part of the emotional puzzle, which is humanity.

Something else caught my eye: the struggles of identity. It hits home. Rose. Her behavior appears bizarre for some people. Not for me: my European mother is spending many years coming to terms with my multicultural struggle, a consequence of not so much Orient present in the house despite my Oriental father, the Oriental rugs and a huge painting of Lebanese mountain village – cedar forest. It wasn’t as bad as Armanoush’s struggle and I agree with her: her mother is crazy. I understand it all: insulted for being a “foreigner” is not an experience you want from your in-laws. Yet, to go as far as Rose’s doom-and-gloom, her fear of losing her daughter, or her fear that said daughter will be contaminated is going a little too far. It’s true; families are not easy. They are the hardest people to understand. I speak from personal experience. Even Asya feels her share of “burdens”. Rose’s story, however, is probably the biggest transformation: she, in a split-second decision, goes to Istanbul. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be shocked. When you look closely, her entire story is also full of that same decision-making: her marriage, her trip, her life in Arizona. We see a fearful individual become someone who fades into someone, who tries to observe. There isn’t another story line for her other than that about her daughter. The latter is her own person with her own journey, dreams (yes books are a dream. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise), and identity only she can accept on her own terms.

The last piece is true for every character in the book. It is the message Shafak leaves us. It’s something hard to grasp but, as Armanoush finds, is just as beautiful as it is scary.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Maria says:

    This book is on my to-read-in-2020 list. This urges me to get to it soon! 💛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. beachah says:

      Yes! Thank you! It’s a wonderful book


  2. Nadine says:

    Wonderful writing… reading this feels like being in the presence of a passionate and thoughtful person… the kind of person it would be good to sit and have coffees with in some energetic café. So many interesting things in here that would be good to ask about and discuss in a more chatty way.

    I also appreciate mandate to only read women. Though I don’t do that myself, I *get* that, I really do. And it’s inspiring in today’s world, where we do need more balance, to hear of someone tilting the scales this way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. beachah says:

      Thank you for your kind words.
      It’s tough, very much so and necessitates a careful choice process in the bookshops and libraries.


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