Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul intricately weaves together the lives of two families, the Turkish Kazanci family and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchian family. When Armanoush, the young daughter of Barsam Tchakhmakhchian and Rose from Kentucky, flies to Istanbul to visit her step-father’s family in Turkey to learn about her heritage, little does she know her visit will open up old wounds that have festered for generations.
The “bastard” of the title is Asya Kazanci, the illegitimate daughter of Zeliha, the youngest of the Kazanci women. Zeliha refuses to reveal the identity of her child’s father. So Asya is raised in a house full of women—her mother, two grandmothers, and three aunts, all of whom gloss over the fact that no one knows her father’s identity. Since she feels cut off from her roots, the nineteen-year-old Asya becomes a nihilist, denying the past has any bearing on her life. When Armanoush (“Amy”) shows up at the Kazanci residence in Istanbul, the step cousins become friends, discovering they have much in common. The novel’s end reveals they have more in common than any could have imagined.
Shafak has written an entertaining tale of families whose fates are intertwined. Her characters ponder questions about the past and how much of the past should be allowed to impinge on their present day lives. Perhaps some secrets should stay buried while others should surface to facilitate healing and reconciliation. Shafak skillfully weaves snapshots of the 1915 Armenian deportations and genocide with the disparate threads of her character’s lives. A picture gradually emerges that links the past with the present, the Armenian family with the Turkish family, in unexpected ways.
The novel’s strength lies in a number of areas. Shafak’s ability to create a sense of place is impressive. She immerses the reader in sights, sounds, smells; in the hustle and the bustle of a cosmopolitan Istanbul in all its beauty and contradictions. Food plays a prominent role both in America and Turkey. Armenian food, Turkish food, and American food are all described in vivid, sensory detail. Interestingly enough, Shafak uses the ingredients for the ashure dessert as her chapter headings, a dessert that plays a pivotal role at the end of the novel.
Shafak’s portrayal of the bevy of women characters is equally impressive. The women envelope Asya in a cocoon of love that is, at times, comforting and, at other times, stifling. Each woman emerges as an authentic individual with a unique set of eccentricities and mannerisms. But there are occasions in which Shafak stretches plausibility. For example, she puts words in the mouths of the nineteen-year-old step cousins that are, perhaps, too sophisticated for their age. Asya, in particular, comes across as inauthentic when spouting her ideology.
The seemingly disparate narrative threads are skillfully woven together to make a rich tapestry with surprising twists and turns, brimming with vivid detail, shifts in time and place, and a touch of magical realism with the sporadic presence of talking djinns. Shafak peppers her narrative with humor, irony, and, above all, with sympathy for characters who struggle with personal identity and with reconciliation for past injustices.