I desperately wanted to love this book. As a self-proclaimed Orientalist, I sought to be swept away by the magic of the Black Sea and the secrets of the Bosporus. I was hoping to find a bit of myself in the young protagonist — an innocent, with a nagging sense of urgency about the disappearing culture around her.
Set in 1877 (and the following 8 years or so), it traces the early childhood of unlikely heroine, Eleonora Cohen. Born under signs of augury and prophecy (at least according to the Tartar midwives), she becomes a ray of hope in confusing political times. She never knew her mother and never felt any true love from her aunt turned step-mother. A voracious reader and quick study, her intelligence is quickly stifled in favor of more acceptable household pursuits. Miserable, she stows away on a ship to Stamboul, revealing herself only after it is too late for her father to turn her out. She becomes an institution in Moncef Bey’s home, particularly after the death of her father. Truly an orphan at the age of eight, she navigates deftly among historical and imaginary figures — spies, revolutionaries, dignitaries and royalty, including Sultan Abdulhamid II.
|Sultan Abdulhamid II|
The idea is intriguing enough but it never seems to come to fruition. Some parts are plodding without reason, while others with potential are glossed over. I did read the Advanced Reader Edition, which warns that it is only a proof and changes might be made before the final printing. However, I find it difficult to imagine an entire overhaul is in store. Simply put, it reads more like a first draft or an outline of a novel, rather than the nearly finished product. It is perfectly readable, just not as good as it could be. His similes are often questionable, yet his knowledge and love of the era and area are clearly very deep. Somehow, the two do not always mesh. Scholarly underpinnings sometimes need to give way to the tides of the story.
Yet there are flashes of brilliance. The all-to-short chapter twenty-three offers a glimpse into Western reaction and ignorance of a complicated set of circumstances, while sitting in a posh hotel lobby in Pera is riveting. Truthfully, it should have opened the book, then flashed back to early days.
|Parcel sheet, sent from Germany to Stamboul|
It is an altogether valiant effort from a first-time novelist. Lukas should be proud of this debut work, and seek to strengthen his story-telling muscles. There are many mysterious tales yet to come from the land that straddles two continents and innumerable cultures. Hopefully Lukas will bring them to our shores.
Thank you to the folks at Harper for the review copy.
On Sale: 2/8/2011
Trimsize: 5 5/8 x 8 1/4
Pages: 304; $24.99