Through the story of a cosmopolitan, upper-middle-class Turkish woman coming to terms with her life, Shafak (The Architect’s Apprentice, 2015, etc.) meshes many of the themes she has explored separately in her previous novels: Turkish politics, spiritualism, and the uneasy relationship between East and West.
In 2016 Istanbul, 35-year-old Peri is en route with her surly 12-year-old daughter to a dinner party when a beggar tries to rob her. As Peri successfully fights off her attacker (possibly with help from a guardian angel), an old photograph falls from her purse, a forgotten Polaroid of Peri standing with three others at Oxford. That photograph continues to tug at her memories when she eventually arrives at the dinner party, a party that may remind film aficionados of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. As course after course is served in the ostentatiously beautiful home, Peri observes her well-heeled fellow guests while she reconsiders her past. She spent an unhappy childhood caught in the cross hairs between her protective, devout mother and her heavy-drinking but adored secularist father, an Atatürk devotee. Unable to decide what she believed, bookworm Peri searched for a path between belief and disbelief. Supported by her father, she attended Oxford in 2000; her intellectual, spiritual, and emotional lives there centered on the others in that photograph: Egyptian-American Mona, a Muslim feminist who wore her headscarf as a choice; Shirin, an aggressively secular, joyful Iranian; and professor Azur, whose controversial course, “Entering the Mind of God/God of the Mind,” had a profound effect on all his students and especially inspired but confused Peri. In 2016, listening to self-absorbed dinner-party chatter expressing a cross-section of Turkish attitudes about nationalism, capitalism, and Islam, Peri decides to face the act of betrayal she committed at Oxford before it’s too late.
Shafak’s infectious, earnest exuberance is used here to better effect than it has been recently; her portrait of a woman in existential crisis feels universal, shining clarifying light on Islam—and religious spirituality in general—within the frame of today’s world.