In this quasi-mystical second novel by Kazan (Good Night, Little Sisters, not reviewed), two girls reach maturity in Constantinople during the tumultuous decade 1890–1900.
Seven-year-old Halide hears her mother’s death rattle and sees the color drain from Selima’s cheeks; then her shocked father, Edib Bey, finds another man’s face in his wife’s locket. In a mosque Halide hears Selima singing; the gift of seeing the dead is handed down through the family’s females, her Granny tells her later. Edib Bey wants brilliant Halide educated by tutors to ready her for the American Girls College, but Granny is shocked. Such education will ruin Halide’s chances to marry, she asserts. Good Turkish husbands want to look down on their wives, not have rivals, and what’s more, those infidels will weaken Halide’s religious beliefs. In Kazan’s depiction of the Ottoman Empire’s waning years, women are kept so ignorant they can read neither clocks nor labels on important medicines, and so let the sick die or recover as God wills. Edib Bey brings home Mahmoure, an irrepressible 12-year-old whose father is in exile, to be Halide’s sister. In fact, Mahmoure truly is Halide’s half-sister; Selima eloped at 15 with unruly Ali Shamil, then divorced him at the behest of Ali Pasha and married Edib Bey. (It is Shamil’s photo Edib saw in his dead wife’s locket.) When the girls are old enough to marry, they must veil their faces. Mahmoure’s father arranges from afar her engagement to the grandson of the Imam of Suleiman, but she wants to marry Riza, a poor army officer. Although Halide wins a great prize at the American Girls College, she’s still uncomfortable barefaced and wears a veil for years before she becomes a teacher’s wife. Her father weds the wealthy and brilliant Teyze, but their world falls apart, the Young Turks rise, the state goes into bankruptcy—and Halide goes on to write 25 novels.
A memorable read: heartfelt, historical, richly realistic. Maybe Kazan can persuade husband Elia to direct a movie version.