Book Review: The Bastard of Istanbul

by Elif Shafak

This is my second Elif Shafak book, and I love the way she gets us tuned in to the rhythms of Istanbul streets. In this one, it is to a rainy day.

Like kittens thrown in a bucketful of water, all ten millions of us up a futile fight against the drops. It cant be said that we are completely alone in the scuffle, for the streets too are on it, with their antediluvian names stenciled on tin placards, and the tombstones of so many saints scattered in all directions, the piles of garbage that wait on almost very corner….

I always find it difficult to review her books; there is so much of story, so many wonderful characters, so much depth to personalities, and so much to say. I want to write about everything, there are so many things I loved that I worry about revealing too much and spoiling it for others. So I have tried and restrained myself!


Zeliha Kazanci, a headstrong and rebellious nineteen-year-old is on her way, on an extremely rainy day, to get an abortion. As she painfully covers the distance to the clinic in her high heels, the author introduces us to her temperament. Zeliha with a pendulum of emotions swinging within her, is remembering the various rules of Female Prudence; and along with the author’s eloquent descriptions of her, we come much closer to her character and start sympathizing with her.

Then there is her family consisting of her mother, grandmother, and three sisters, a motley of ladies living in a house together sans any men (as all the men in the family mysteriously die in their early forties).

The varied reactions of the Kazanci family members to Zeliha’s pregnancy very cleverly gives us a clear distinction to their personalities.

…Banu dropped her chicken wing and looked down at her feet as if they had something to do with this; Cevriye pursed her lips hard; Feride shrieked and then oddly unleashed a whoop of laughter; their mother tensely rubbed her forehead, feeling the first aura of a terrible headache approaching; and Petite-Ma…well, Petite-Ma just continued to eat her yogurt soup.

But the story is about Asya Kazanci, Zeliha’s daughter. Brought up in a household of all females, known to be born as a bastard, Asya turns out to be exactly like her mother. She is seething inside about her life and the people around her; considers her home a big nuthouse, has a strained relationship with her mother, is a staunch follower of Johnny Cash, and believes that nothing in life is worthwhile. Her only solace is the time she spends with her friends at Cafe Kundera, including a married man who she is having an affair with.

The story then shifts thousands of miles across the Atlantic to Arizona, USA, where a newly divorced Rose and her daughter Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian meets Mustafa Kazanci, who later becomes a part of their family. Armanoush grows up in two households; one of her father Barsam’s, proud Armenian family consisting of three loving aunts and a very loving grandmother, and the other her mother’s, all American and anti -Armenian

Beautiful and smart, Armanoush finds it difficult to connect to her peers and only feels comfortable in an online chat room of Armenian people called Cafe Constantinopolis. And though she loves her Armenian heritage, she feels she doesn’t belong to them completely.

To that effect she decides to travel to Turkey to learn about her grandmother’s past so she can connect better with her present. The violent past that Turkish and Armenian people share prevents her from revealing her plans to her family and she secretly arrives in Istanbul as a guest of the Kazanci household.

As Armanoush tries to invoke some guilt or repentance in others by narrating the terrible tale of her grandmother who suffered at the hands of the Turks, she realized that as much as the Armenians are stuck in their past, the Turks have completely moved away from it. Despite this, she bonds with Asya and her family members not knowing that they are tied together in the strangest ways.

Here is the interesting part of this book; the past history of Asya’s and Armanoush’s family. As chapter by chapter the story unfolds in present the author reveals the past. With each revelation you are stumped and want even more of it. The past and present are beautifully weaved together.

Family is a big part of this tale. How the actions of some members can maybe change the course of fate. It makes one imagine the enormous effect a family can have in shaping its members, and also at each step, it makes you wonder if your family’s past was changed, would your present be different?

The arguments from both the Armenian and the Turkish sides have been put forth in a very sensitive manner and at the same time the similarities have been highlighted through their family culture & cuisine. It was a medley of paradoxes.

The Bastard of Istanbul is a tale of many stories interwoven in a heartwarming, mystical, and beautiful manner! The author has detailed out each character and I loved reading about each of them. It’s the detailing that makes this book so engrossing.

Last but not least I loved how all the chapters are named after the condiments used in Turkish dishes.

Rating: 4.5/5

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Bastard of Istanbul”

  1. Very nicely written review it has really hooked me on and this is a book I am gonna read soon.😊

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