There are writers and then there are storytellers. Elif Shafak would gracefully glide into the latter. A storyteller for sure and a captivating one at that! I had received this book for review by Penguin a few months ago and it has taken me a while to put my thoughts to paper. I suppose I was fearful of not being able to do justice to the sheer brilliance of this novel.
The book is set in Istanbul, Turkey and Oxford, England. The manner in which the story flits between two locations and two different points in time has been presented so beautifully that at no point do you feel confused or overwhelmed.
The story revolves around Peri who at present is a rich housewife in Istanbul. An encounter with a thief reveals a photograph from her past and this takes us back to Peri’s days in Oxford University, her life as a student and the intense relationships she enters into especially her relationship with one Professor Azur. This professor seems to live on the periphery of the acceptable notions of God and religion and through his classes he attempts to challenge and seemingly provoke deeply held beliefs of his students. Having been brought up in a home where her mother is very religious and her father not so much, Peri is trying to establish her own sense of faith as reflected in this sentence “God was a maze without a map, a circle without a centre; the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that never seemed to fit together. If only she could solve this mystery, she could bring meaning to senselessness, reason to madness, order to chaos, and perhaps, too, she could learn to be happy.”
Through this process she is seen to be engaged in a lot of self-reflection as well as being privy to the views of others specifically Shirin and Mona who end up being her friends in the initially unfamiliar world of Oxford. The following paragraph from the book helps encapsulate Peri’s impressions of Oxford. I found myself relating to this to a great extent when I first came to London as a student leaving behind the bustling city of Mumbai.
“The first thing that struck Peri about Oxford was the silence. That was, and would remain for months to come, the one peculiarity she found hard to get used to – the absence of noise. Istanbul was unashamedly boisterous, day and night; even when one pulled down the shutters, drew the curtains, put in earplugs and pulled the blanket up to one’s chin, the din, barely weakened, would penetrate through the walls, seeping into one’s sleep.”
The cultural difference between Turkey and England is so artfully presented through this sentence that I had to stop reading for a while and ponder “If I gave a bad performance on stage, Peri thought to herself, in Turkey, they’d pelt me with twigs of prickly holly; in England, I imagine it’d be with roses – confident that I’d get the message from the thorns. Totally different styles.”
Character development has been done with great care as evidenced in the fact that you still end up recalling characteristics of some of the characters long after you have finished reading the book. As you may have gathered, Shafak’s writing style is enamouring and possesses the rare quality of speaking to one’s soul. This book is her latest and quite ironically her first that I have read and it would be safe to say that I will be seeking out a lot more of her work.
I am wholly grateful to the publisher for giving me an opportunity to review this gem of a book!