Summary and book reviews of The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul

by Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 368 pages

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Book Summary

From one of Turkey’s most acclaimed and outspoken writers, a novel about the tangled histories of two families.

In her second novel written in English, Elif Shafak confronts her country’s violent past in a vivid and colorful tale set in both Turkey and the United States. 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. Full of vigorous, unforgettable female characters, The Bastard of Istanbul is a bold, powerful tale that will confirm Shafak as a rising star of international fiction.

ONE
Cinnamon

Whatever falls from the sky above, thou shall not curse it. That includes the rain.

No matter what might pour down, no matter how heavy the cloudburst or how icy the sleet, you should never ever utter profanities against whatever the heavens might have in store for us. Everybody knows this. And that includes Zeliha.

Yet, there she was on this first Friday of July, walking on a sidewalk that flowed next to hopelessly clogged traffic; rushing to an appointment she was now late for, swearing like a trooper, hissing one profanity after another at the broken pavement stones, at her high heels, at the man stalking her, at each and every driver who honked frantically when it was an urban fact that clamor had no effect on unclogging traffic, at the whole Ottoman dynasty for once upon a time conquering the city of Constantinople, and then sticking by its mistake, and yes, at the rain . . . this damn summer rain.

Rain is an agony here. In other parts of the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Discussion Questions

  1. On page 34, to whom, and for what, is Zeliha apologizing?

  2. The women of this novel create many rules for themselves. Identify and list them, discussing the circumstances that each reflects.

  3. How do the various characters in the novel express their femininity or womanhood? How do both the religious conservatism and the secularity of Istanbul influence them?

  4. Asya wants so much to be different from her mother. Yet she is like her in so many ways. Compare and contrast Zeliha and Asya.

  5. On page 135, Auntie Cevriye says, “The problem with us Turks is that we are constantly being misinterpreted and misunderstood.” Share your idea of what it must be like to live in Turkey. Has this book changed or ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Shafak's leisurely, gently humorous narrative of two families of strong women makes for easy, entertaining and elucidating reading - it is one of those very rare books that actually improves upon reflection.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (1537 words).

Media Reviews

The Los Angeles Times - Ben Ehrenreich

Worlds collide and find themselves already interwoven...there's more going on than interfamilial melodrama, and Shafak's ambitions do not stop with an airing of Turkey's century-old dirty laundry...In the end, Shafak resists a tidy wrap-up. She leaves most of her characters in the lurch, abandoning them midcrisis, their dilemmas only deepened with a dose of ambiguity. But how else could she leave them? The point here - and of the ugly fuss that has greeted the book's publication - is that the past is never finished, never neat, and never ours.

Elle Magazine - Jennifer Gerson

Shafak's writing is seductive; each chapter of her novel is named for a food, and the warmth of the Turkish kitchen lies at the center of its wide-ranging plot. The Bastard of Istanbul portrays family as more than merely a function of genetics and fate, folding together history and fiction, the personal and the political into a thing of beauty.

St. Louis Post Dispatch - Patricia Corrigan

A fast paced story of love, loss, and coincidence. Shafak writes powerfully of war (cultural and familial), of peace and the meaning of moral fortitude. She possesses a steady hand when it comes to creating strong female characters, and her vivid descriptions of the charms of Istanbul serve to lure the traveler...Shafak's characters linger in the mind days after finishing the book.

The Chicago Tribune - Alan Cheuse

Beautifully imagined...it's as much family history as national history that drives this vital and entertaining novel. And it's the powerful and idiosyncratic characters who drive the family history. An, as you hear in your mind's ear, it's Shafak's vibrant language that drives the characters...This wonderful new novel carried me away. And reality was different when I returned.

San Francisco Chronicle - Saul Austerlitz

The purposeful ignorance of Shafak's Turks, born out of a willing turning away from past familial horrors, becomes a symbol for the collective Turkish turning away from the horrors of the Armenian genocide. Shafak is incapable of bringing harmony to such unsettled matters, even in the pages of a fiction narrative. All she can do, and does, is shine a light on the past, and keep it shining so that everyone - Turkish, Armenian, and otherwise - must look.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette - Sherrie Flick

Through her characters Shafak examines how the stories we love and the stories we tell become who we are. Her writing is beautiful and meaningful and will astound you as you find the many ways to claim the story as, also, your own...This is an important book about forgetting, about retelling stories, about denial, about not knowing your past, about knowing your past, and about choosing (again and again) to start over.

Kirkus Reviews

Shafak handles her large cast of characters and plotting with finesse. A hugely ambitious exploration of complex historical realities handled with an enchantingly light touch.

Publishers Weekly

She incorporates a political taboo into an entertaining and insightful ensemble novel, one that posits the universality of family, culture and coincidence.

Library Journal

Despite heavy themes, Shafak is often funny, and her weaving of recipes and folk tales into the text makes it both enlightening and entertaining. While this alone would recommend the novel, that Shafak was recently acquitted of the charge of "denigrating Turkishness" because of her frank look at Turkish-Armenian antipathy makes it essential reading.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Starred Review. Shafak weaves an intricate and vibrant saga of repression and freedom, cultural clashes and convergences, pragmatism and mysticism, and crimes and retribution, subtly revealing just how inextricably entwined we all are, whatever our heritage or beliefs.

The Washington Post - Barry Unsworth

… there is no reconciliation without justice. Elif Shafak's novel brings the possibility of it a step closer, and we are all in her debt for this.

Reader Reviews

Bilal Safdar

Good
It is very good book.

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At its height the Ottoman Empire, which had its capital in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), spanned three continents, controlling much of Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for about 600 years.

The "golden age" of the Empire was in the 16th Century during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. It was the only Islamic power to seriously challenge the rising power of Western Europe from the Renaissance onwards. The Empire steadily declined during the 19th ...

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