Jahan, the narrator of this richly textured, lusciously expansive historical novel, begins and ends the book by running away, seeking a peace that will never come. He escapes from his abusive stepfather and arrives (thanks to an English captain who works for the Ottomans) in 16th-century Istanbul, a ‘city of slanders and echoes’. It is a sprawling behemoth, gobbling up and spitting out people at random; the vicissitudes of life are magnified for all ranks. Ravaged by the evils of nature – fires, plagues – and of men in the form of plots, counter-plots, revenges and vendettas, it seems that there is no foundation secure enough for anyone to cling to.
Elif Shafak uses the city to explore the various tensions that abound within it. The overarching theme is that of the pursuit of knowledge set against the strictures of religion, and the book as a whole has the dreamlike, vivid quality of an ancient fairy tale, full of forbidden love