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Book review: Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice

Elif Shafak’s new novel is set in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire’s greatest period. It’s a triumphant success.
A detail from a 17th-century illuminated Ottoman manuscript showing Topkai Palace at the height of its importance and magnificence. Leemage / UIG / Getty Images
A detail from a 17th-century illuminated Ottoman manuscript showing Topkai Palace at the height of its importance and magnificence. Leemage / UIG / Getty Images

In Istanbul: Memories of the City, Orhan Pamuk declares that his birthplace “has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-­empire melancholy”. Elif Shafak’s latest novel, The Architect’s Apprentice, is set in 16th-century Istanbul at the height of the Ottoman Empire, and so instead of ruins we find glorious buildings – mosques, madrassas, caravanserais, bridges and aqueducts, the majority commissioned by sultans and the finest constructed by the royal architect Mimar Sinan and his team. Like Pamuk, Shafak excels at taking the reader deep into Istanbul. In going back centuries and flitting between rough and tumble streets and the Sultan’s seraglio, she widens her scope and serves up her grandest novel to date.

Jahan, a 12-year-old Indian orphan, arrives in Istanbul with a gift for the Sultan: a white elephant called Chota. Admitted into the Topkapi Palace, Jahan takes up residence in the menagerie among other animals and their tamers and trains Chota to respond to the ruler’s whims. Two notable individuals change Jahan’s life: the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Mihrimah, who becomes an enduring source of infatuation; and Sinan, the master builder, who recruits him as one of his four apprentices.

With an adopted city, an illustrious mentor and an unattainable lover, Jahan’s life becomes one of exploration, self-­fulfilment and yearning. Shafak puts him through his paces: he is sent to war by the Sultan and later to Rome by Sinan to learn from Michelangelo; he spends a night in a “bawdy house” and weeks of captivity in the palace dungeon; and in the novel’s surprisingly thrilling conclusion, he attempts to settle scores after stumbling upon a dastardly plot of treachery and intrigue.

The Architect’s Apprentice is more streamlined and less convoluted than Shafak’s most famous novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (2007). She packs a lot into her capacious narrative. Jahan serves under three sultans, including the volatile Suleiman the Magnificent, who tasks his builders with monstrous construction projects and unrealistic deadlines. We follow the progress of Sinan’s architectural achievements from paper to completion – although building frequently becomes rebuilding when Istanbul is ravaged by plague, fire and floods.

The book’s cast is huge and gloriously exotic. Within the palace Jahan mingles with eunuchs, odalisques, dragomans, Janissaries and a malicious Sultana adept at threatening and sweet-­talking her unfortunate listener in the same sentence. The city is both a melting pot of faiths and cultures and a stew of poverty and crime.

Rich and poor is only one of many binaries. Istanbul for Jahan is “a wen of opposites”, a city which “gave generously and, with the same breath, recalled her gift”. Shafak’s palace scenes play out in sumptuous soft focus, while Jahan’s trips to slums, brothels and opium dens are shaded in a coarse graininess. Shafak employs other tricks as she conveys the slightly unreal, fairy-tale quality of Jahan’s journey. He comes up against pantomimic villains: wicked uncles, evil sea captains and the Sultan’s ruthless right-hand man, the Grand Vizier. The language is period-perfect: corsairs, scullions, mendicants, brigands, pedlars and harlots stalk streets and ports. And then there is Shafak’s highly stylised prose, studded with ornate metaphors. Istanbul at night “shone brighter than the eyes of a young bride”. The dimple in Jahan’s cheek is “a cook’s fingerprint on soft dough”. A mosque’s tiles are “sage-green, sapphire-blue and a red as dark as yesterday’s blood”.

Only occasionally does the odd modern touch slip in uninvited (“Nobody messed with Carnation Kamil Agha”), or do we veer towards pastiche (“Mihrimah had been betrothed to Rustem Pasha, a man of 40 winters and infinite ambition”). When the novel is at its most exuberant – miraculous escapes, performing animals, magisterial buildings – we expect Shafak to unleash the ghosts, djinns and gypsy curses she has fleetingly mentioned, to bring in the mysticism that has infused and informed her previous work, and to allow magic realism to transform the ­proceedings.

It never does, and the novel is all the better for balancing between fantasy and harsh actuality. And harsh it all too often is. The Sultan’s brothers are strangled on his orders the night he ascends the throne. Poor neighbourhoods are torn down to make way for new mosques. Foreign lands are conquered, pillaged, their people enslaved.

If one of the functions of fiction is to transport the reader, then The Architect’s Apprentice succeeds triumphantly. Shafak’s best novel to date is an enchanting, illuminating and truly immersive reading experience.

Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: November 13, 2014 04:00 AM

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