The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
Even before this book hit U.S. shelves, French-born Turkish author Elif Shafak was charged with insulting “Turkishness” in violation of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code because one of her characters refers to the large-scale massacre of Armenians that began in 1915 in Turkey as genocide. The charges were eventually dropped for apparent lack of evidence – “If there is a thief in a novel, it doesn’t make the novelist a thief,” Shafak was quoted in the International Herald Tribune – and the book definitely got some great press.
Would I have bought the title without the surrounding controversy (and finally get around to reading it now for some reason)? Probably not. Would I have finished it if numerous people had not told me how great it was? Definitely negative. As entertainingly wacky as some of Shafak’s characters were, too many too-clever moments and overwritten passages left my tired eyeballs rolling more often than not. But finish it I finally did …
Shafak’s second novel written in English and her fifth overall, is a painful history lesson – albeit told with moments of great humor – presented as two intertwined extended family stories, the Istanbul-ite Kazancis and the Armenian American Tchakhmakhachians. The Kazancis are a matriarchy-by-default because all the men seem to die young, except for the lone son who fled Turkey for the U.S. 20 years ago and never returned. Four generations of Kazanci women live together under one roof, the youngest being the eponymous ‘bastard,’ 19-year-old nihilist Asya whose gorgeous mother, Zeliha, is the youngest of four uniquely kooky sisters.
On the other side of the world lives Armanoush, the youngest of the extended Armenian genocide-surviving Tchakhmakhachian clan, whose Kentucky-born mother divorced her Armenian American father and soon thereafter married the lone Kazanci son, Mustafa. Splitting her time between father’s family in San Francisco and her mother and stepfather in Arizona, Armanoush decides she must go confront her past in Istanbul if she is to have any understanding of her own identity.
She lands in the midst of the Kazanci clan, and establishes a soulful bond with her at-first reluctant, sort-of-more-than-cousin Asya. There in the homeland, the family histories unravel story by story leading back to when ancestors overlapped generations past, thanks especially to the insistent djinn who sits on Auntie Banu’s shoulder and reveals one awful truth after another …
Published: 2007 (United States)