Tuesday 31 January 2017

Book Review: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

In her acknowledgements at the back of The Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak mentions that in 2006, between the Turkish and English editions of this novel, she was put on trial for 'denigrating Turkishness'.

As a result of the words spoken by some of her fictional Armenian characters, Shafak could have received up to three years in jail. Charges were eventually dropped, but it still highlights the risks many writers face in getting their stories published. More than ten years later, according to a recent statistic in The Independent, of the 259 journalists in prison around the world, 81 are in Turkey. Who knows how this may change in the turmoil of the months ahead.

Turkish collective memory dates back to the birth of their modern secular state in 1923, an event that ruled a line through what came before. In contrast, the identity of the Armenian diaspora is firmly grounded in its past; the persecution they suffered during the genocide of 1915 is still disputed by Turkey. It's her depiction of these events that led to Shafak being charged.

Zeliha Kazanci is nineteen and unmarried when she makes her way to a doctor's surgery for an abortion. Short skirt, high heels, beautiful and determined in the face of the wrong sort of attention on the streets. Zeliha is a modern Turkish woman, the very antithesis of  a traditional stereotype. But amid the noise and bustle of Istanbul, she too is in chaos, and the appointment doesn't go according to plan.

Twenty years later, Asya Kazanci lives with her extended family of womenfolk in Istanbul; due to a mysterious curse, all the men in her family die in their early forties. Her mother, Zeliha, now runs a tattoo parlour, but Asya treats her as just another one of her aunties; alongside clairvoyant Banu, with a djinn on each shoulder, schoolteacher Cevriye and crazy, paranoid Feride. Together, they are loud, intense and larger-than-life; despite her protests, they feed Asya every year with birthday cake she doesn't like and send her along to ballet lessons she doesn't want.

Asya has her own ways of rebelling; sneaking away to the enigmatically named Cafe Kundera and a group of wryly-observed Turkish intellectual archetypes including the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist, The Closeted-Gay Columnist and the Exceptionally Untalented Poet.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Mustafa, the one surviving man in the Kazanci family, has exiled himself in Arizona to escape the family curse. There he met and married Rose, divorced from her Armenian husband, and became step-father to her young daughter, Armanoush.

Shuttling between her life in Arizona and her father's family in San Francisco, Armanoush suffers the crisis of identity so familiar to those whose roots are divided; switching between an all-American life with a mother who calls her Amy and the Armenian traditions of grandmother Shushan and yet more well-meaning but over-bearing aunties. Armanoush finds her solace in an Internet chat room of similarly-conflicted virtual friends.

It's as Armanoush delves more deeply into her own identity, and Auntie Banu uses her powers to revisit past events, that the two families begin to come together. Secrets from intertwined past lives are finally unlocked, reverberating through the decades with devastating consequences for both Asya and Armanoush.

Shafak's novel is a paean to Istanbul for all its flaws; the sights, sounds and smells of this meeting point of Europe and Asia in its passions, diversity and chaos. Each chapter title is a different foodstuff - sugar, vanilla, dried figs, for example - and the central descriptions of the meals prepared by both the Armenian and Turkish families - often overlapping in their traditions - are both mouthwatering and intensely evocative.

What begins as one family's story expands its scope across the ocean, bringing together a cast of characters to rival an epic Russian novel, blended with the magical realism of a South American saga. There's religion - both Muslim and Christian - and secularity, humour and pathos, tradition and modernity, all wrapped up in this complex, multi-layered tale of humanity. With the power of history and the interdependence of a divided nation being dissected through the lens of family life, The Bastard of Istanbul is a novel that resonates deeply; a fictional  microcosm of conflicts playing out around the world.

The Bastard of Istanbul is published in the UK by Penguin Books. You can also read my review of Elif Shafak's novels The Architect's Apprentice here and Honour here. Elif Shafak's latest book Three Daughter's of Eve is available in the UK in hardcover from 2 February 2017 published by Viking Books. You can read The Lonesome Reader's review of it here

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Theatre Review: Pride and Prejudice at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Regent’s Park Theatre’s revival of its 2013 open-air Pride and Prejudice comes to the Theatre Royal in Bath, following in the literary footsteps of its previous productions To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies.

In a city that claims Jane Austen as one of its own – with a dedicated centre and festival – Simon Reade’s adaptation needs to do more than just re-hash a storyline already so familiar, not only from the novel, but also the multitude of film and television versions it has spawned. And he does this in style; enlarging from page to stage via Max Jones’ wrought iron, two-storey revolving set that brings an elegant fluidity and dynamism to its scenes.

The 2017 tour sees a new cast for this production; Felicity Montagu is the embodiment of bustling busybody Mrs Bennet, delivering Austen’s ‘truth universally acknowledged’ with sincerity, as she frets over the unmarried state of her five daughters. Montagu avoids the trap of farce and provides much of the play’s narrative drive; a chivvying, frantic ball of energy. And for good reason; without marriage, her family’s property will be entailed away and her daughters left destitute. All very well for Mr Bennet to sit and criticise with caustic asides, delivered with perfect timing by an on-form Matthew Kelly.

Tafline Steen as Elizabeth Bennet is a vital new force; finding the full range of Elizabeth’s determination – tantamount to foolishness in her day – in refusing not one but two marriage proposals. Steen’s Bennet is charming, refreshing and quick witted, never cowed by greater wealth or social status; it’s easy to see why Benjamin Dilloway’s Mr Darcy falls for her against his better judgement, even as she veers towards the headstrong and unmodishly opinionated. And yet, the development of this central relationship is not completely satisfactory; Darcy doesn’t unbend quite enough towards Elizabeth here and their animosity works better than its reverse. At the end, an essential chemistry seems lacking between them.

Other notable performances come from Steven Meo as a suitably ridiculous and oleaginous Mr Collins, providing many of the play’s comic highlights in his role as the cipher of Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and Kirsty Rider, making an impressive professional debut as the waspish Caroline Bingley.

Inevitably, there are aspects missing; Wickham becomes little more than a plot device and, despite best efforts, it’s impossible to capture fully Austen’s authorial voice and her characters’ interior musings.

Still, Deborah Bruce’s direction brings clarity to the condensing and reordering of complex themes and many enjoyable touches, such as the family’s synchronised flourishing of napkins at the dining table. Tom Piper’s costumes are stylish and versatile in effortlessly accommodating changes to scene and occasion, while Lillian Henley’s original composition enhances the atmosphere. Regent’s Park Theatre has produced an attractive and pleasing staging of a much-loved classic that never fails to entertain.

Reviewed on 17 January 2017, touring until 25 February 2017 | Image: Johan Persson

Thursday 12 January 2017

Book Review: Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson

For Dark Iceland regulars, returning to Siglufjördur for the fourth in the series is like revisiting an old friend; familiar on the surface, but with a barely suppressed turmoil threatening to shatter the smooth veneer.

Ragnar Jónasson's atmospheric thrillers centre around this small, isolated fishing town encircled by mountains in the far north of Iceland. Cleverly, he avoids hiking the crime rate to Midsomer Murders levels by setting many of his books' dark misdeeds in the surrounding terrain.

In RuptureSiglufjördur is once again cut off, reversing the recent accessibility of new tunnels with the quarantine of deadly infection. Worse still, its inhabitants are staying indoors and the claustrophobia police officer Ari Thór Arason experienced on first arriving in the town is back.

As a questionable means of staving off disquiet, Ari Thór investigates an old case of two young couples who moved to the uninhabited neighbouring fjord of Hedinsfjördur over fifty years ago. The sudden death of one of the women was written off as an accident and the survivors moved away. But the unearthing of a haunting new photograph shows the couples may not have been alone in their remote farmhouse, after all.

Ari Thór enlists the help of news reporter Ísrún, based in Reykjavik, who made her first welcome appearance in Jónasson's previous novel BlackoutÍsrún, a young woman with a backstory every bit as complex as Ari Thór's, is increasingly caught up in a tangled web of her own; an unexplained murder and a child taken away from his mother in plain sight. Besides the personal and social tragedy, a political scandal looms; the repercussions of her journalistic investigation threaten to reach to the very top of Icelandic government.

Once again translated by Quentin Bates, Jónasson plays to his strengths in Rupture. His writing has taken on the confidence and suspenseful skill of a master craftsman perfecting his piece; layer upon layer of meticulous detail patiently added and left to unsettle the reader's mind. Each character and event adds to the mix; there is no superfluity here. As a resolution to dark secrets approaches, through a combination of his characters' ingenuity and a writer's sleight of hand, Jónasson leaves you wanting to know more.

Will Ari Thór's twisting relationship with his girlfriend Kristín work out this time? Can Ísrún overcome her personal problems to find a measure of  tranquillity? It's testament to his seamless characterisation that, by the end of the novel, these questions are as critical as the resolution of the crimes.

Rupture is published in paperback on 15 January 2017 by Orenda Books, an ebook version is already available. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Monday 9 January 2017

Theatre Review: Crimes Against Christmas at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
If you’d prefer to hang on to the festive spirit for as long as possible, fighting back against the January gloom, then Crimes Against Christmas, a New Old Friends and Lichfield Garrick co-production, is an intriguing prospect.

A good old-fashioned, grown-up antidote to the traditional family pantomime, this new caper from the pen of Feargus Woods Dunlop takes the golden age of murder mystery and plays it for laughs. Take Agatha Christie’s classic thriller And Then There Were None, recast it in a 12 Days of Christmas mould and you get the idea. A group of strangers, mysteriously invited to spend the festive holiday on a remote island, begin to meet their fates in increasingly quick succession and suspiciously Yule-related ways.

An oil baron discovered packed into a drum and a chef suffocated by their own piping bag. As the body count mounts in implausible circumstances, it’s not looking too good for art detective Pete Artridge, faced with a rope and a nearby pear tree.

The premise is a little lengthy in set up but, once established, zips along at a breathless pace with outstanding bursts of verbal dexterity. Woods Dunlop plays the pivotal role of Artridge; penniless, down on his luck and tasked by a shadowy visitor to his detective agency with preventing the theft of a priceless Christmas bauble. He acts the intrepid hero with great relish while narrating an unfolding tale of dastardly deeds and throwing in a few contemporary references for good measure.

Conjuring up a 13-strong guest list from a cast of just four is no mean feat; the other three members of the ensemble take on their mostly convincing multiple roles – from aged resident Duke (Jonny McClean) to nice but dim son-in-law to pampered Russian princess – with such lightning adaptability, it’s hard to believe there isn’t a bigger cast on stage. McClean’s range in interpreting a panoply of characters, including an Italian Don and swaggering street poet, is particularly distinctive and droll.

Don’t expect subtlety; the simple set’s revolving doors spin to their farcical maximum and could at times be offset with direction of greater visual variety and physicality. The clever use of torches to search the island is one welcome interlude and could be taken further. Events become necessarily contrived, but there’s fun to be had in working out the next victim’s untimely demise and satisfaction in finally discovering the true identity of the murderer behind the mayhem.

Reviewed on 3 January 2017 | Image: Pamela Raith