8 Best Books by Elif Shafak

I always devour all the books written by a Turkish writer, Elif Shafak. I deeply connect with the way she tells the stories of people from the peripheries of the society and how she gives the voice to the voiceless. In her books Elif Shafak always shows a rather nuanced perspective and avoids stereotyping.

I find Elif’s writing emotionally sensitive and compassionate. Her prose does connect with me at a deeper level and serves like a balm for my soul.

I have prepared a list of my favourite books by Elif Shafak which I hope you will find useful, especially if you are about to embark on a reading journey with Elif Shafak’s novels.

10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD

The tale of Leila, the main protagonist of the book, celebrates the diversity of life in its complexity and works like a calming balm for my own emotions. What 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World does is an attempt to re-humanise the numbers; Leila’s story brings back the humanity to the ones whose lives have been forgotten and whose names have been turned into numbers. The inspiration for 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was a series of scientific research where the doctors observed a persistent brain activity for a few minutes after patients’ heart stops beating. What happens to a human brain during this time became a basis for the story of Leila. We know from the first sentences that the main character, Leila, is dead. At the time of her death, she is in her 40s and has worked as a prostitute in Istanbul. We find out at the very beginning of the book that Leila was brutally murdered, and her body was dumped in the garbage bin as a final insult to her humanity. Although Leila’s heart stopped beating, her brain is still working. As Leila remembers the important moments from her life during these few minutes, we take on a journey through her life and also through the story of her homeland, Turkey. As we travel with Leila, we listen to the stories told through the eyes of the outsiders, people from the peripheries of the society including Leila herself and her ‘water family’ consisting of her friends. The tale of Leila and her friends is life-affirming. It celebrates the diversity; inclusion and it places a special value on friendships, solidarity and empathy reflected in the emphasis on the shared values that people hold rather than on the differences they might have. I would recommend 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak to everyone who is interested in entering the world of “the other” for some time, laying aside the views and values one holds without bias and prejudice and to see how different this world might look like through the eyes of another human being with different values and life experiences. FULL REVIEW

THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak set in the 1970’s Cyprus and contemporary London of 2010’s is a tale narrated partly by a fig tree, partly by humans about the transgenerational trauma, the burden of the past on the current and future generations when it comes to dealing with wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, enforced borders drawn on a piece of paper at one time in history and how it affects the lives of the future generations. Elif Shafak has created a beautiful tale of wonder and nostalgia, pointing out to the connections between the past, present, and future as well as between the physical and the spiritual. It is also a profoundly moving ode to the natural world: world of non-human animals and plants. The author weaves together a stunning story full of the references to both Turkish and Greek Cypriot cultures which connects the destruction of a natural world to the destruction caused by the human ego, hatred. The meaning of ‘home’, migration, memory, stories in our lives, being uprooted or rootless, human rights versus animal rights especially during the times of war, fanaticism, nationalism, the passage of time, sensitivity treated often as a curse among many cultures rather than a noble virtue, the suffering on both sides of the conflict based on the past events in the 1970’s Cyprus, also constitute a part of this novel’s diverse topicality. The Island of Missing Trees offers an in-depth exploration of one the most painful consequences of every conflict: missing persons. There are reference not only to Cyprus, but also to the past events in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, the Spanish Civil War, the Nuremberg trials, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia. When it comes to the darkest chapters of the history, the similarities can be found everywhere, regardless of the place and time. Writing is very sublime, lyrical and the variety of topics put together is a real feast for book lovers. I highly recommend this book. FULL REVIEW

THE FLEA PALACE

This novel evolves around the inhabitants of a run-down stately apartment block in Istanbul, called Bonbon Palace built by a Russian emigrant.
There are lots of stories within a story. We can see diversity of the characters from different social, ethnic and national backgrounds. This novel requires attention from the reader, it incorporates many insights into anxieties and daily problems of the inhabitants of Bonbon Palace in context of Istanbul – a living city, and in context of each inhabitant’s background. Some of the inhabitants include: identical twins, Cemal and Celal who run a hair salon – one is an extrovert and another is an introvert; an elderly Hadj Hadj who loves telling his grandchildren stories; another Russian immigrant, Nadia and her husband Metinthe narrator of the story – a philosophizing academic professor; there is a lady obsessed with cleanness and others. There are also Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist characters in the novel navigating through ambiguity of religion and secularism, Western and Eastern thought. The Flea Palace is a microscope of a Turkish society and it allows to get a better understanding of the Turkish identity. I really enjoyed this book. It is one of the earlier novels by Elif Shafak and we can see how Shafak’s writing has evolved over the years.
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THE ARCHITECT’S APPRENTICE

Through a young apprentice, the Indian boy called Jahan, we travel to the 16th century Istanbul during the times of the Ottoman Empire under the reign of three sultans: Suleyman, Salim and Murad. We meet many historical figures including Mimar Sinan, the famed architect of that era responsible for construction of over 300 buildings such as the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Selimiye Mosque, Mehmed Pasha Mosque and the bridge on the River Drina in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With Jahan, we also travel to the 16th century Rome, Agra in India during the time of Taj Mahal building. We learn about the Ottoman Empire and Mughal India. ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’  resembles ‘Thousand and One Nights’ consisting of many vignettes. The language is poetic, elegant, sublime, imaginative and just delightful; and the mixture of historical facts and fiction is remarkable. This novel is a combination of history, architectural details, mythology, spirituality, magic, adventure. It evolves around meeting between the Western and Eastern culture and philosophical thought. We observe the fascinating world of the Ottoman Istanbul through the eyes of an immigrant, Jahan. The themes of discrimination of minority groups such as Romany is respectfully depicted in the novel. The position of women in the patriarchal society is shown in an interesting and nuanced way. This book brought so much peace to my soul. Writing is so uniquely beautiful and rich with details that easily allows the reader to travel to the different magical reality of the ancient Istanbul and other corners of the world.

THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak tackles many different topics including religion, or rather the meaning of God in one’s life, how cultural and political circumstances shape lives of the individuals and the position of women in Eastern and Western societies. The story does provide an insight into Turkey’s turbulent past such as military coup in the 1980s and how life looked like during the rule of the military. There are descriptions of house search, torture, imprisonment of the individuals for holding different opinions to the ones accepted by the government and society. We also see what the years of torture, imprisonment and humiliation can do to the individual life. All this is intertwined with the reflections on religious beliefs in the Muslim society. In the book we observe how members of the same family might follow very different paths: one of extreme views on religion and national identity and another one of liberal values, secularism and idealism. We witness the contemporary Istanbul and also the Western life, reflected in the main protagonist, Peri’s life in Oxford where she experiences the life as an immigrant which challenges her identity. During her student years in England, she is exposed to conflicting views on God, religion and the meaning of life. As a young woman while studying at Oxford University, Peri shares the house with two other young women: Shirin -`the Sinner’ who is non-religious British-Iranian whose views could often be considered anti-religious; and Mona ‘the Believer’, an Egyptian – American student who is a devoted Muslim proud of her cultural and religious heritage. Peri – ‘the Confused’ is the one who questions and doubts. She does not believe in any absolutisms and certainties – she is closer to what we can refer to as agnosticism. Three Daughters of Eve offers a very interesting exploration of religion, women’s position in the society, cultural and national identity. FULL REVIEW

THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak is a beautiful, rich and evocative tale of the Turkish and Armenian families coming to terms with their painful past, rooted in the Armenian genocide committed in the early 20th century. The novel grapples with Turkey’s dark legacies but writing is so compassionate, spirited and, at the same time, exuberant and life-affirming. One of the main topics in the book is the way in which the past conditions the present and especially the impact the history and past atrocities have on the future generations. Historic trauma can often be passed on from one generation to the next which might significantly influence an individual life. Reading this book one can imagine being in the city of Istanbul, immersed in its colours, smells, sounds and history. The incorporation of recipes and anecdotes associated with the traditions and the culture of Istanbul allows the readers to understand a broader reality, or one should say, multiple realities of the inhabitants of this magical city. This is also a tale about the importance of multiple identities when one feels torn between different sides, unable to belong to one place, unable to choose just one identity. If you are interested in the subjects of the historic trauma, its connection to the future, multiple identities, the consequences of losing cosmopolitan heritage on social norms and attitudes, I would highly recommend you to read The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. FULL REVIEW

HOW TO STAY SANE IN AN AGE OF DIVISION

This book constitutes a very thoughtful, emotionally sensitive and compelling exploration of the current state of the world and society we live in. It is a lesson in profound empathy. My gobbledygook won’t do justice to this little book. So, I would recommend you to get yourself a copy. It is just under 100 pages and you can read it within a few hours. There are many thoughts on anxiety, identity, tribalism, belonging, freedom of speech, apathy, the meaning of ‘normal’ and of ‘information’, democracy and the feelings of disillusionment so present in our communities.
As usual for Elif Shafak, her writing provides food for thought. It is nuanced, multi-layered, going against simplicity, focusing on the emotions, and diversity of life in its all complexity. To finish I will use the quote from this book which moved me profoundly:

“The question ‘where are you from?’ has always mattered to me, and felt deeply personal, albeit equally complicated. For a long time it was the one question I dreaded being asked. ‘I am from multiple places’, I wanted to be able to say in return. (…) But even if I could offer this answer it would probably fail to satisfy the person who has posed the question in the first place. ‘Yes, but where are you really from?’ they would insist. I knew the format. Questionnaire style. You could only fit one word in that box, no more. In an age of speed, simplicity and fleeting glimpses, few people had either the time or the patience for long answers. So I would simply say ‘Turkey’, and they would nod, satisfied. ‘Yeah, I thought I had heard it in your accent’.

THE FORTY RULES OF LOVE

The Forty Rules of Love follows the life of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz in the 13th century intertwined with the story of 40-something Ella set in the contemporary times. Personally for me, the story of Shams of Tabriz and the Persian poet, Rumi was a highlight of this book. The novel is a poetic exploration of Sufism and its tenants. Beautiful writing, nuanced descriptions of Rumi’s personality from different perspectives make this book a real delight to read. The portrayal of women in the 13th century Konya is rich in detail, and provides an interesting foundation for further reflection. I enjoyed this book and I think it is a great book to give others as a gift. It makes for a pleasant and gentle read.

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1 Comment

  1. A very interesting list! From your description, I think I will certainly enjoy The Forty Rules of Love. I have only read The Architect’s Apprentice and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, but found both imperfect, for example, regarding 10 Minutes 38 Seconds, I think Shafak did borrow from Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, so the concept is far from original, I found it rather superficial.

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