Book Review: The Architect's Apprentice

The Architect's Apprenticearchitect's apprentice coverby Elif ShafakViking, 2015The Architect's Apprentice, the latest novel from Elif Shafak (whose blazingly good 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul established her on a world stage outside her native Turkey), is a defiantly opulent thing, a leisurely splendor of a thousand glittering details, and in this it resembles – quite intentionally, one imagines – the gorgeous buildings its titular architect, the great 16th century builder Sinan, brought into being all across Turkey during a half-century ruled by three different sultans. This is a sprawling, intensely human historical novel of a type that will draw well-deserved comparisons with Dmitry Merezhkovsky's The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci and Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy.It's nominally the story of a young Indian boy named Jahan who journeys to Istanbul in the company of a gorgeous white elephant who's intended for service in the Ottoman Empire. But the story branches in all directions from Jahan's Everyman viewpoint. In very little time, his status as mahout to the elephant Chota brings him to all aspects of the imperial Turkish world, from warfare to palace intrigue in the form of the sultan's daughter Princess Mihrimah (a sharply-drawn creation who, in the way of the best historical novel supporting characters, seems worthy of a book of her own). Jahan comes to the attention of the Chief Imperial Architect Sinan, and soon he and Chota are helping to create some of the most famous buildings in the Empire.We follow Jahan through fifty years of a busy and eventful life, and that life is the book's plot. His deepening relationship with the princess brings him into predictable conflict with palace climbers and place-seekers who view him as a dangerous intruder, and as she piles on one incident after another, one year after another, Shafak indulges herself freely in passages of breathless prose that wouldn't look out of place in Gone with the Wind:

Upon learning that Rustem Pasha had passed away, Jahan felt many things at once, but sorrow wasn't among them. Princess Mihrimah's husband … the father of her three children … the royal favourite who had touched her every night … the devshirme who had risen too fast … the great Grand Vizier, much respected and much feared … The man who had sent Jahan to the dungeon and expected him to kiss is hand upon release .. had gone the way of all flesh. He had been suffering from dropsy for a while, that much Jahan knew. For no matter how he had tried to keep the man away from his thoughts, every passing day Jahan had heard something new about him and hated him more.

And the passage of time is handled so deftly throughout that its twists can catch the reader every bit as unaware as the characters. Mihrimah's sickness and death (“The coldest day in forty years, they called it,” Jahan bleakly reflects, “the day Mihrimah died”) uproot us all the more convincingly because we've lived with her so long, and likewise Jahan's relationship with gentle, wise Chota is evoked in scenes of a gradually-increasing minimalism made possible by the chronological heft of the narrative, to the point where their offhand intimacies can be given virtually in couplets:

The afternoon of the big day, Jahan washed, brushed and oiled Chota tusk to tail. Then he put the mantle and anklets on him.'So handsome,' Jahan cooed. 'If I were a lady elephant I'd fall for you.'For a split second Chota's eyes, too small for his head, crinkled with mirth. In this state they passed through the gates and into the inner courtyards.

Anyone familiar with Shafak's earlier work will hardly be surprised by the fact that to all of these wonderfully-drawn relationships must be added a larger and more overriding one: the author's relationship with Istanbul itself. The city functions as a character – impossibly old and yet vivacious – throughout the book:

Istanbul, the seat of the throne, weary of fires and earthquakes though it was, bulged at the seams. A honeysuckle of a city, it drew from near and far people of every kind – bustling, seeking, yearning. There were far too many souls under the same sky, outnumbering the stars at which they gazed – Muslims, Christians, Jews, believers and heretics of each faith, talking to God all at once, their pleas and prayers for succour and good fortune carried in the wind, mingling with the cries of seagulls. Jahan wondered how the Almighty could hear any of them over the commotion.

The Architect's Apprentice is a more ambitious book than any of Shafak's earlier works, at least in terms of technical proficiency (anyone who thinks a fifty-year narrative is a simple thing to pull off dramatically ought to try it first), and it's rewardingly intelligent and touching. Fans of large-scale historical fiction done superbly well shouldn't miss it.