AUTHOR: ELIF SHAFAK
Details: Book Club Read
“Family stories intermingle in such ways that what happened generations ago can have an impact on seemingly irrelevant developments of the present day. The past is anything but bygone.”
Armanoush has an American mother and an Armenian father who are separated. When her mother remarried it was to Mustafa, a Turkish man. Armanoush spends part of her time in San Francisco with her father’s family and part in Arizona with her mother. She is a young woman, caught between cultures, raised on stories about the horrendous hardships Armenians went through in the early 20th century with little idea of what her forefather’s homeland looks like. When curiosity gets the better of her she decides to travel to Istanbul without telling anybody. After all, in Istanbul she can stay with her stepfather’s family. Mustafa may not have been back to his homeland or his family in twenty years but now his stepdaughter will come to visit.
In Istanbul 20 year old Asya has grown up in a house filled with women. Born out of wedlock she has no idea who her father is and calls her mother “Auntie” just as she does her mother’s three sisters. Asya has initially no intention of becoming friends with this stranger from America but as the days go by the two girls grow closer and, unbeknownst to them, so do their stories and histories.
There is a lot more to the story in this book than I have described above. I could extend the summary with descriptions of the individual aunts, the back-stories of the various older generation characters as well as the troubled history between the Armenian and Turkish people. To do so would mean writing a short story rather than a review though. And I can’t help feeling that no matter how much I expand on my summary, I will still leave out details that others might consider vital to the story. And besides, one issue I had with this book was that the author seemed to want to tell too many stories. I don’t think this book needed the detailed histories and descriptions of so many different characters. I can’t help feeling that the book would have left a deeper impression if the author had concentrated on the two young women while using their families as background figures – characters with walk-on parts so to speak.
What I did enjoy was the insight this book gave me into a history I knew little or nothing about. I had some vague idea about troubles between the Turkish and Armenian people but wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about it or even place it at a specific moment in time. The author did a great job explaining this history in all its heartbreaking detail without either turning it into a tear-jerking drama or sounding overly judgemental. I feel she also dealt very well with the feelings modern day, exiled, Armenians hang on to and the ignorance of a lot of Turkish people with regard to that history and those feelings. The reader isn’t forced to take sides. There is no need to condemn one people in favour of the other. Just as the characters doing despicable or objectionable things in this story don’t stay bad all their lives, neither do the sins of the fathers determine relationships between their children. The past may be anything but bygone, that doesn’t mean that those in the present can’t create a new future.
Another thing I really liked, and something that took me by surprise when it first came up in the story, was the supernatural aspect to this story. This made information available to the characters, and therefore the reader, that would have been far more difficult to share without the fortune telling "auntie".
This was a clever, insightful, very well written and easy to read book with a fascinating story. Maybe the author tried to cram in a bit too much information for me, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to turn the pages at a ferocious pace.