Quite simply, I adored this book. I can’t remember now whether I heard about it on NPR, or read about it in the NYT Book Review. I read some of the reader reviews on Amazon, and almost bought the book, but decided I would borrow it from my local library instead. I suspect it will be one of my favorite books of 2011, and that I will buy it for myself as a present in December.
This is from the dust jacket, and is a most apt description: “The Oracle of Stamboul is a marvelously evocative, magical historical novel that will transport readers to another time and place—romantic, exotic, yet remarkably similar to our own.”
Our protagonist is Eleanora Cohen, a young Romanian Jew born in Constanta in 1877. She is born under several auspicious signs, leading the midwives attending her birth to believe that she is the one spoken of in a centuries’ old prophecy. Is she this child? Does she fulfill the prophecy? Does it matter to the story? As Michael David Lukas himself wrote, “we will never know for certain. And so it should be.” Note: this ambiguity is, I believe, the reason many of the Amazon reviewers were dissatisfied with the ending. I am not one of them.
When Eleanora is 8, she stows away on a ship to join her father, a carpet salesman, in Stamboul (modern day Istanbul). The narrative alternates among Eleanora, Sultan Abdulhamid II and an American professor and spy, Reverend James Muehler.
It’s a not an overly complex story–Lukas said he was inspired by fairy tales–but it is charming and elegant. Eleanora is a wonderful protagonist. She is extremely intelligent and has a remarkable memory; at age 8, she can read seven languages, and the majority of the book is third-person narration from Eleanora’s perspective.
Much as I enjoyed Eleanora, I was most taken with Lukas’ prose. He writes such wonderful phrases (everything was imbued with the scent of possibility) and passages. Two of my favorites are after the jump. I’ve also found links to Lukas’ previous work, and I plan to start reading. My only complaint is that Eleanora’s favorite novel, The Hourglass, is also fictional. Buy or borrow this book, but read it.
Summer slipped into Stamboul under the cover of a midday shower. It took up residence near the foundations of the Galata Bridget and drifted through the city like a stray dog. Ducking in and out of alleyways, the new season made itself felt in the tenacity of fruit flies buzzing about a pyramid of figs, in the increasingly confident tone of the muezzin, and the growing petulance of shopkeepers in the produce market (139).
It began with a few muffled sniffs, a soft choke, and a welling of tears. Then, she felt a loosening in her stomach and it rose up inside her, from the very bottom of her gut, up through her lungs, and into her throat, like a pale-eyed sea creature finally surfacing after decades of haunting the deep. When she opened her mouth, her small body shuddered. The pressure of the past two weeks…all this came tumbling out….She cried for…all the suffering she knew nothing about, but most of all, she cried for herself, for the improbability of her own existence and the raw uncertainty of her place in the world (235).