Elif Shafak,
The Architect's Apprentice
(Viking, 2014)

One of the reasons I enjoy reading non-Western authors is because they generally have a very different approach to narrative flow, pacing, character-building and the like. In all of these ways, Elif Shafak's The Architect's Apprentice is a delight.

The prose is elegant without being either obscure or overly poetic. It's very evocative of the time and place in which it's set -- Istanbul, in the 16th century CE. Although our view of it is via only one protagonist, he still gives us an interesting picture of both its strengths and weaknesses. So, in terms of context and writing, this is a brilliant novel.

But I ended dissatisfied in some ways -- which may well mean I am more invested in the Western tropes than I thought. However:

I simply did not find it plausible that, in a society as status-conscious as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, one person could be both an animal-handler (a status barely higher than a slave) AND one of the prized apprentices to the Court Architect. Even if this were possible socially, wherever did he find the time? Both jobs were full-time, and if he could devote only half time to the apprenticeship ... well, I think the other apprentices would have easily surpassed him.

And the plot threads depend mightily on accepting this anomaly. It worked well enough while I was actually reading the book, but every time i put it down, I had questions.

The plot threads, too, gave me pause. Although they did come together in the end -- to a point -- I am not convinced that the characters of various of the people in the book, as described, would willingly overlook some of the deceptions, especially when that left someone they cared about in the lurch, and even violated important legacies.

It was rather nice to see the Gypsies or Roma used as effectively a deus ex machina: when things got truly hopeless, they sailed in to the rescue, albeit for no especially persuasive reason. Still, for a people that is still distrusted, this was a nice touch.

I will also mention that there is pretty much no female content in this book. It's all the lads, all the time. I'm used to tokenism of women in Western books; this doesn't even go that far. This may well be true to the era and culture, but it does not enrich the book.

This is a historical novel, in the some of the characters in it actually existed, though they did not perhaps do things when and where and why they are depicted as doing.

It is a well-written and enticing book, and fun to read despite my quibbles!

book review by
Amanda Fisher

8 August 2015

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