Not knowing of Elif Shafak and having not read one of her books before, I picked up The Architect’s Apprentice with no expectations and must say that I am fortunate that this book came across my path.
Writing in both Turkish and English, Elif Shafak has released 13 books and is the most widely read female writer in Turkey. Having graduated with a Masters degree in Gender and Women’s studies as well as a Ph.D. in Politics, Shafak is an active public speaker ad columnist, contributing to major newspapers in Turkey, the UK and the US. She is not shy of tackling subjects that result in heavy debate as well as high acclaim both in her novels as well as her non-fiction work. It is an absolute wonder and embarrassment that I had not heard of her sooner.
Shafak is a master of intertwining Eastern and Western traditions of storytelling in her novels which result in insightful cultural and historical pieces that reveal the truth of the minorities that rarely get a glimpse in the history books.
Set between 1546 and 1632, people from all walks of life populate the pages of The Architect’s Apprentice, but at the heart of the story is a young boy Jahan, his elephant Chota and his master, Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman Architect who served three Ottoman emperors over 50 years.
At the height of the Ottoman Empire, we follow the curious, loyal and forever youthful Jahan and his elephant on their life adventure, from the palace menagerie, to the dungeons, from war, to Rome and back, encountering numerous colourful characters along the way.
Possibly the most influential character being Jahan’s master, Mimar Sinan. Constructing more than 300 major structures in his lifetime, it is surprising that Sinan is not as well known or as celebrated as say Michelangelo, one the the great Western Renaissance architects. It is this type of cultural and historical prejudice that Elif Shafak attempts to confront and change in her writing and it is for this reason that one feels all the richer for reading one of her books.
Blending historical fiction with urban politics, Shafak brings the city of Istanbul to life – from each building that is constructed to the streets and the people that roam them. The novel is jam packed with characters and their stories and you feel that you get a true glimpse into Istanbul in the 16th century, not through the eyes of those in the palace but rather from the point of view of those deep in the city. The Architect’s Apprentice is a truly enlightening read, a change from the norm and highly recommended.