I am a French literature lover. Really, I am. I’ve started reading at age 4 and never stopped since with an ever growing love for my native language. It has something magical to me, a poetry I couldn’t find anywhere else. Baudelaire and Duras are my ultimate favourites. But since I live in a place where putting my hands on French books has been quite a challenge, I now mainly read in English.
Going from book store to book store, I stumbled upon many books from the same author, Elif Shafak. To be honest, I was first attracted by the gorgeous covers more than the stories. I mean, I knew nothing of this woman before I set foot in Kuwait one year ago, so forgive my shallowness.
Elif Shafak is a prolific writer. I still have many of her oeuvres to discover but everything in its due time. However, three of them have caught my attention so far:
- The Bastard of Istanbul
- The Architect’s Apprentice
Three stories with very different backgrounds and even timelines: if The Bastard of Istanbul takes place in a very modern Turkey, both The Architect’s Apprentice and Honour take you more or less back in time. Nevertheless, Shafak affectionates a common theme throughout all of them — love and family.
If you know the author, you might have also heard about her views and her very feminist stance as she fights bigotry and sexism in any way she can, starting with her books. She explores unapologetically all the possibilities of love and family as both of them exist in too many shapes and forms to count, moulded and remoulded by mankind, tragedy, happiness and History itself.
At first, I was only going to talk about Honour, since it’s the last that I’ve read. Also, of all three, it’s the one I loved the most. It got me completely hooked, a real page-turner compared to the other two. At least for me.
The Bastard of Istanbul is built in a very similar way; diving into one family’s history and drama from generation to another, unraveling a shameful secret. The Architect’s Apprentice also digs into people’s past to reveal their true self and intentions. The main difference is that it had a softer side involving a poetry of words directly drawn from the imagery of an Ottoman Empire in its full glory.
It’s a women’s world
As I mentioned before, Shafak likes to tell the tale of families through the ages, connecting generations with knowingly or unknowingly shared secrets. All of her female characters represent a side of femininity, either built by women themselves or imposed by society.
She leaves nothing aside, capturing the freedom and obstacles women experience in their every day life. Because of their gender, because of their status or simply because they don’t dare grasp the life they would like to live.
Some of them fit perfectly in their expected roles, some of them fight harshly against it and others navigate between two worlds, pushing limits, boundaries at their own scale.
However, they are the only motive, the cause for actions taken or the ones taking actions against all odds. Even when placed remotely in the background, they are the one and only pillar.
The complexity of simplicity
Shafak’s books are usually quite easy to read, for non English speakers included. General meaning is never lost, even if I miss a word or two, which is remarkable. She’s able to deliver a very accessible story supported by an extensive imagery of flavourful analogies and metaphors that will leave the tastes of Istanbul on one’s tongue.
All the while, she creates an intricate web of relationships growing or dying through time. It always starts with a focal point that may or may not be the heart of the story. Nevertheless, even when in the background, no character is left unexplored and no action is inconsequential. With Shafak, a mere gaze could send a whole family ablaze.
As you follow the threads, you realise the all too many directions and possibilities to delve into the story. What could seem so obvious in the beginning often gets blurred and hazy as soon as you start digging a little deeper. Her characters are like their storylines. A bit blunt at first, rough, yet already incomprehensible, outrageous even. But then, their actions are slowly revealed like flowers in bloom, beautiful and toxic, strong and patient or quickly withering away. Still, each with a place of their own in this vast garden, they all have a specific interest and ask the onlookers poise and endurance in their observation.
Shafak’s stories are set in a hard stone cold reality. Yet she always give a part to superstition and religion with that one character in touch with the invisible. She opens the gates of a multi-dimensional world where djinnis, creed and faith guide her heroes on a path that looks like pure fate.
Is it that we have one written destiny or luck is an ill-adviser? Either way, we are often left with ‘what ifs’ and no answers.
However, it feels real and humanly enough to identify one self when her characters have their own rituals to help them get through life.
Elif Shafak is one of the best literary surprises I came across in the past few years. I still find myself very curious about her books while being fond of her style. She writes about life in a very vivid manner. The sophistication of her words never draws the reader’s attention away from the crudeness of what she describes nor from the underlying message she’s here to send. Welcome to a Women’s world.