This novel started brilliantly. Peri, a middle-class woman in Istanbul is on her way to a dinner party. She is trapped in traffic, arguing with her daughter, irritated by the people around her, anticipating the tedious rituals of the evening ahead. Then an encounter with a robber pushes her to breaking point. I couldn’t wait to read on.
But sadly it all goes downhill from there. As you expect the woman’s crisis to play out instead you get her journey through the courses and wine at the dinner party, interspersed with flashbacks to her coming-of-age story. This starts, like the story of the present, powerfully, but then drifts. Peri is less a character than a careful construction of contradictions – East and West, religion and atheism, passion and shyness and so on.
The crux of the story, constantly foreshadowed, is her relationship with two female students and a male professor at Oxford. It’s pretty obvious where this is heading but the suspense is drawn out through the book (and the meal). Along the way there are laboured conversations in the present about the political situation in Turkey, and in the flashbacks worthy discussions about the nature of religion and belief. It all feels a bit, well, undergraduate.
For the book to work you also have to buy into the seductive allure of the academic, Professor Azur. Obviously there will always be some students who are susceptible, but here they seem to flock to him en masse. Surely even at Oxford most students would be more animated by bands or sport or reality TV than the theatrics of lecturers in philosophy of religion?
I have seen Elif Shafak speaking on TV about the political situation in Turkey and she is always interesting so I had high expectations for this novel. It began with great potential but the story feels messy and unedited (there are a number of repetitions and contradictions, and the ending is rushed and incoherent). There are some fascinating insights into life in Turkey and some genuinely heartrending moments but the novel doesn’t live up to the promise of the opening pages.