I absolutely loved this book. I originally came to my critique with a feminist pitchfork. And, while female autonomy within a patriarchal society is an important theme, I think this book is principally about antipathy and the friendships that can be found in accepting one another as we are. Friends are the family we choose.
Leila’s sexual abuse as a child sculpts her entire trajectory. Her parents support her abuser and so she flees to Istanbul where she is sold into prostitution. Repeatedly, women are represented as origins of sin – the temptresses – responsible for both their own and others actions. While those men that press sin upon them and dictate their societal worth are given a blind eye. It is this blind eye and re-writing of narratives to fit faith that Shafak seems to question. No one is a “good” person just because they are people of faith. How we treat those that are different from us is a truer reflection of our ethics. As such, a reoccurring discourse is “things were better before those immigrants” (spoken by the very same people preaching on sin). Istanbul during this period was incorporating western influence; a bridge connecting them to Europe having just been built. Coupled with the migration of those from provincial villages and surrounding countries means that Istanbul became a cultural melting pot. Different ideologies, faiths and languages all brushing shoulders. Even within Leila’s own friendship group they have opposing views on a great number of things, yet, they still support one another. It is their friendship that is a beacon of light throughout this book and, for me, signified the beauty that can come from finding acceptance.
The unrest between various sects of society is palpable throughout. Particularly around the brewing revolution and massacre of protestors in 1977. During the protest, rather than being unified, each liberal has a different ideology of what progress looks like and which political doctrine they agree with, something applied even more widely to the city as a whole. Those that are rejected by family and ergo society can be found buried, unmarked, in The Cemetery of the Companionless. Even in death those that don’t fit the mould are shunned. Friends cannot claim your body for burial. So, here, rapists and their victims lie side by side. Refugees that didn’t make it and unlucky tourists all lie here. Symbols of a city’s resistance to accommodate “other”.