Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Elif Shafak is a great writer. Her breadth of writing style, the variety of characters she produces and the richness of the worlds that she creates make her books enjoyable, rewarding and very different to one another. I first discovered Shafak when I read The Bastard of Istanbul.
When we were packing our belongings to move to Norway, we had meagre space for anything other than clothes. We carefully selected the books that we would bring then revisited the pile repeatedly until we had trimmed the selections down to just books that we haven’t read and are likely to be great. In Trondheim we bought a 3 shelf bookcase to house our books and they stand in our living room in our 80 square meter apartment. So far I don’t think that any of us have read any of the books that we brought with us! Instead our children are avidly borrowing from the library and with the little bit of reading time that I don’t devote to reading The Economist, I’ve been reading other books, 1 borrowed from a colleague, 1 bought 2nd hand in Riga at a great English language book shop and the most recent The Architect’s Apprentice which I uncharacteristically bought new in Kuwait when I ran out of reading material on a recent work trip. I was drawn to the beautiful cover art and when I saw that it was written by Elif Shafak I knew that I should break my rule about not buying new books and buy it.
It’s odd how faces, solid and visible as they are, evaporate, while words, made of breath, stay.
Shafak deftly takes the reader into the exotic, tumultuous and dramatic world of Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire. We follow a boy (Jahan) and a white elephant (Chota) who enter the Sultan’s menagerie and lose whatever agency and freedom they would otherwise have had. The elephant is from India and traveled to Turkey as a gift from the Mohgul to the Sultan.
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.
As the Sultan’s mahout, Jahan rides Chota into battle and is fraught with fear that Chota will cause mayhem and damage. In the aftermath of the battle, Jahan is traumatized and meets Sinar, the famous architect who worked for 3 different Sultan’s across a 50 year career as the chief architect. Somehow Jahan impresses Sinar and becomes his apprentice, while continuing to live in the menagerie.
Jahan falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter and lives for her visits to the menagerie. His love for Princess Mihrimah is a constant thread through the book, as is his devotion to Chota.
Jahan is saved repeatedly from various scrapes by the patriarch of a Romany group, named Balaban. For me Balaban is the most interesting character; he’s erratic, incomprehensible, powerful and loving towards Jahan.
Sometimes, for the soul to thrive, the heart needs to be broken
One weakness of the story is that Shafak does not allow Jahan to mature and instead he remains a 12 year old boy throughout the novel.
Jahan starts as the 4th apprentice of the venerable architect Sinar. The apprentices compete with one another for favour from Sinar, for their plans to be selected for construction and to be assigned to prominent projects. Jahan gains the love and respect of Sinar. In a way Balaban and Sinar are both father figures for Jahan.
There are a few confusing aspects to the story, like the significance of the Italian thief and the animosity of Mihrimah’s servant towards Jahan but otherwise I greatly enjoyed reading this excellent historical novel and I hope that you do too!