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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Despite all the grief that it embodies, history is what keeps us alive and united", 1 May 2007
This review is from: The Bastard of Istanbul (Hardcover)
In this novel of friendship, memory and religion, author Elif Shafak weaves a complex tale that juxtaposes the past with the present and unveils the age-old cultural dissonance that exists between the Turks and Armenians. Thus at its heart, The Bastard of Istanbul is a deep meditation on what it really means to be a product of history, a history "that has always kept us alive and united."

Armanoush (Amy) Tchakhmakhchian has grown up in Arizona. Undoubtedly American, Amy has always been aware of her unique Armenian heritage. As Amy grows older, she's always conscious of her fragmented childhood, yet unable to find a sense of continuity that she so richly craves.

In the meantime, Rose, Amy's American mother, marries Mustafa Kazanci, a young Turk, transplanted to Arizona by his family back in Istanbul in the hope that he will be spared the bad omen that has fallen upon every man in the Kazanci family. Barsam, Amy's Armenian father has since relocated to San Francisco and the fact that a Turk is currently raising his daughter, and that Barsam is doing nothing about it provides a constant source of displeasure for his family.

In Istanbul, the young Asya grows up listening to the music of Johnny Cash, the identity of her father shrouded in secrecy, forced to call her mother "aunt" Zeliha, whilst also labeled a "bastard" by the world around her. Zeliha, with her with her "frizzy raven-black hair, and her nose ring," and her natural propensity to rebelliousness frustrates her sisters and her mother, this group of Kazanci women who have entwined their lives with "traditions, evil-eye beads, coffee-cup readings, and fortune-telling ceremonies."

Amy and Asya are inexplicably pushed together, unexpectedly finding themselves drawn to each other by history, and also by their respective families. Unable to put up with her mother's encapsulating universe, and feeling like she's constantly on parade in San Francisco, Amy can't help feeling that something is absent, that part of her identity is missing, and that without it she can't start living her own life.

"I need to find my Armenianess first, even if this requires a voyage into the past," Amy says as she decides to clandestinely take a trip to Istanbul. It is in this city with its exquisite Bosphorus landscapes and its "hodgepodge of ten million lives" that Amy attempts to find the answers to the sorrow of her ancestors and recognition for all the loss, grief and pain of the Armenian genocide.

Surprisingly Amy and Asya hit it off right away, both of them intelligent and thoughtful and modern, with Asya taking Amy on a tour guide of her beloved city. The more Amy stays in Istanbul, the more twisted and multi-facetted the city grows to be and the more she begins to embody the spirit of her people that existed generations and generations earlier.

Shafak - with varying degrees of success - weaves together various historical subplots with Turkish and Armenian myths and folklore, and sprinkles her narrative with an assortment of eccentric family members - on both sides of the isle. She also brings together the various points of view of this complicated Armenian and Turkish Diaspora and buried within her narrative is a sharp dissection - and understanding - of race and nationality.

In Istanbul, and indeed in America, the Turks and Armenians often cohabit in mutual unease. The Armenians keeping their memories of the genocide very much alive, whilst the average Turk has no such notion of continuity with his or her ancestors.

In a rich and elaborate style that calls to mind a tumultuous past as it clashes with an uncertain future, Shafak portrays Amy and Asya as two unbridled innocents caught in the middle of their respective nationalities, Amy is drawn into the Kazanci household and is ultimately seduced by the beatific chaos of Istanbul, whilst Asya searches for an identity far removed from her world, as she knows it.

In the process, both of these girls are forced to confront the notion of whether it is really better for them to discover more of their past, or to simply know as little of the past as possible, and even go so far as to forget what small amount of the past that they remember. Mike Leonard April 07
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Jun 2010 09:11:17 BDT
J. Cooke says:
Would the author of this comment please refrain in future from re-telling the story. It is possible to provide a review without telling everyone what the book is about - otherwise what's the point of reading the book??

Posted on 1 Jun 2010 09:12:04 BDT
J. Cooke says:
Would the author of this comment please refrain in future from re-telling the story. It is possible to provide a review without telling everyone what the book is about - otherwise what's the point of reading the book??
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