In Tucson, Arizona, Armanoush Tchakmakchian, an Armenian-American college girl, decides she needs to go to Turkey to see the homeland out of which her grandmother's family was driven during the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, in Istanbul, Asya Kazanci, the 19-year-old Turkish girl who will end up being Armanoush's involuntary host, spends her days hating her crazy family and her meaningless life. Naturally, the two girls become unlikely friends over the course of the week of discovery Armanoush spends in Istanbul.
The predominant themes in this book are the nature and impossibilities of family and the Armenian genocide. The story is a little potted: cartoonish characters, spirit-guides, time travel, and a tangled mess of happy and unhappy coincidences. The writing is nothing you can help but cringe at. But the book is worth reading nonetheless for its content. Shafak goes to no lengths whatsoever to hide her agenda--on her acknowledgments page, she brags about her 2006 arrest as a result of the book's Turkish publication--so you'll enjoy this book as long as you're prepared to be brow-beaten by the ideas that a) Armenian-Americans hate Turks, and b) Turks either don't believe their was a genocide or don't understand why the genocide is still relevant.
Despite lack of any particular subtlety, the book makes some interesting and thought-provoking points. Although Shafak makes the 1915 Armenian case a heart-wrenching one, she doesn't delineate good guys and bad guys.
Armenian refugees--most specifically, Armenian-Americans--are after 90 years because Turkey still denies the horrors their ancestors were made to suffer. Turks, meanwhile, can feel great empathy for Armenian descendants. The good women of the Kazanci family, for example, experience great pain on hearing Armanoush's family history. They simply don't see themselves as having anything to do with the whole thing--the race crimes against Armenians were perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks, a great "They" that contemporary modernized Turks also see has a horrific regime of the past. Hence the impasse: Armenians look for acknowledgment (if not compensation), and Turks can offer only sympathy (those that bother--there is the requisite cafe nationalist who declares no such genocide happened).
It's an interesting observation on many of the racial and cultural morasses that populate modern relationships and politics all over the world: the clash of the obsessive oppressed and the forgetful erstwhile oppressor:
Slowly it dawned on Armanoush that perhaps she was waiting for an admission of guilt, if not an apology. And yet that apology had not come, not because they had not felt for her, for it looked as if they had, but because they had seen no connection between themselves and the perpetrators of the crimes. She, as an Armenian, embodied the spirits of her people generations and generations earlier, whereas the average Turk had no such notion of continuity with his or her ancestors. The Armenians and the Turks lived in different time frames. For the Armenians, time was a cycle in which the past incarnated in the present and the present birthed the future. For the Turks, time was a multihyphenated line, where the pat ended at some definite point and the present started anew from scratch, and there was nothing but rupture in between. (164-165)
Weaknesses aside, THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL is a straightforward and accessible "Turkish" novel that makes a valiant effort to clear up for the confused--there are more than two of us--some of the most ubiquitious Turkey-related news items. Certainly worth reading, especially for any American (or other "outsider") interested in Turkish or Armenian culture.
Unrelated bonus: there's a really yummy recipe on page 272 for the most delicious dessert you can imagine.