A lyrical debut novel of life in 19th-century Turkey, focusing on the effect a young prodigy (aka The Oracle of Stamboul) has on the political and cultural leaders of the time.
Born in 1877, Eleonora Cohen enters a world of tragedy, for her mother Leah dies in childbirth, and her father, the businessman Yakob, is scarcely prepared to raise a young girl on his own. Enter Leah’s sister, the officious Ruxandra, who marries her brother-in-law and prepares to raise the child. When Eleonora is eight, her father goes to Stamboul—Istanbul—to sell rugs, and Eleonora secrets herself in the ship hold to be with her father. In the city she has an opportunity to further her considerable education. She demonstrates her penetrating mind by watching her father play backgammon, and then playing (and winning) her first few games. Eventually, she becomes a polymath and winds up learning seven languages. When her father dies in a ship explosion, she is left in the hands of her father’s friend, Moncef Bey, who’s both charmed and amazed by her erudition. Word of this precocious child gets to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the Caliph of Islam, who tests her understanding and then begins relying on her for political advice. Though cautioned by Jamaludin Pasha, the Grand Vizier, to be careful taking advice from an eight-year-old, the sultan is impressed by her shrewd political evaluations and begins to make foreign-policy decisions based on her judgment. In fact, he sends her trunks of documents to study, for the Ottoman Empire is caught on shaky ground between the German Empire and Tsarist Russia, the latter sometimes openly attacking Turkish troops. It turns out that Eleonora is indeed an oracle, perhaps the incarnation of a divine prophecy made many centuries before, for certain omens seem to have heralded her birth and young life. She ultimately vanishes, leaving almost no trace of her influence.
A quiet but passionate novel that beautifully conveys the flavor of Turkish culture.