x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas

More lacklustre magical realism set in yet another excoticised oriental city

The birth of Eleonora Cohen is attended by a mysterious flock of hoopoes, a pair of Tartar midwives drawn by signs of an ancient prophesy fulfilled and the depredations of a marauding regiment of Cossack cavalry.

Set on the shores of the Black Sea as the Ottoman Empire begins to fray around the edges, Michael David Lukas' debut novel The Oracle of Stamboul signals from the start that we are in the world of magical realism, as Cohen, whose mother dies at the moment of her birth, shows signs of advanced precocity almost from her first breath.

Concealing herself in a steamer trunk, Eleonara, now eight years old, follows her rug salesman father Yakob to Istanbul, where the book is further populated by a cast of characters that include an American padre who may be a double agent, an aristocratic benefactor and, in the heart of the Topkapi Palace, the Sultan Abudhamid II.

As the pages become busier, though, it is clear that the story increasingly lacks direction. A strong sense of place cannot compensate for the unresolved questions of Eleonara's origins or her purpose in the narrative of the crumbling empire.

In the end, this is a novel that is not very magical and hardly much more realistic.