The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak – A Review

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Being a huge fan of Elif Shafak’s writing, I started this book with a certain level of bias, and high expectations. As always, Shafak lived up to those expectations; The Architect’s Apprentice is a joy to read, and especially so for lovers of historical writing.

The book focuses on the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century, delivering a gripping story that spans the reign of Sultans Suleiman I, Selim II and Murad III, and their architectural projects implemented by the Chief Royal Architect, Sinan. It is an enchanting and illuminating tale that oscillates lyrically between fantasy and reality. The story touches the intricacies of human bonds, love, life and betrayal with a beautiful finesse. It delivers historical events with a compelling and delightful repartee, and has readers falling in love with the magnificent city of Istanbul. Not only does the city epitomize architecture, it also acts as a melting pot of faiths and cultures.

“We are not destroying the buildings, son,” says Sinan. “We are destroying our desire to possess them. Only God is the owner. Of the stone and the skill.”

Screen-Shot-2015-04-04-at-12.55.55-amThe Architect’s Apprentice is gracefully written, in a light, airy tone that has readers growing and progressing with the plot. Loping through the finely wrought narrative are a white elephant, Chota, and his unlike companion mahout Jahan. The story follows Jahan and Chota through the reign of the 3 Sultans, in a series of historical snapshots. Jahan himself is a study in uncertainty, and often finds himself out of his depth, in a world he never expected to inhabit. In the adopted city of Istanbul, and under an illustrious mentor, Jahan’s life becomes one of exploration and yearning. Shafak takes the reader through his many adventures; when he is sent to war by the Sultan and later to Rome by Sinan to learn from Michelangelo; when he spends a night in a “bawdy house” and spends weeks captive in the palace dungeon; and in the novel’s thrilling conclusion, when he attempts to settle scores after stumbling upon an intriguing plot of treachery. There is, as one might expect, a love story; Jahan’s longing for the Sultan’s daughter, a yearning that is both forbidden and impossible, but has its special moments of stolen tenderness.

Watching Jahan navigate his way through Istanbul’s complexities is akin to watching a tightrope walker, admiring his balance and concentration, while constantly anticipating a fall. The plot very cleverly echoes Jahan’s insecurities as well as his growth, as readers see him through the different situations life throws at him, waiting until the very end before revealing its final secrets.

Screen-Shot-2015-04-04-at-12.56.25-amShafak’s intense storytelling has her characters leaping off the pages of her novel. They flow effortlessly through the narrative, carrying it along in comfortable harmony. For all of Jahan’s uncertainties, though, the most fascinating character in this book is surely Sinan, the architect responsible for some of Istanbul’s best-known landmarks. This man, despite being the only one who knows all the secrets of the Palace and the city, is a calm centre in the whirling tempest of Ottoman politics. His character has many facets – strength, intrigue, wit, faith, intellect, wisdom, and, most importantly, the skill of teaching. To awestruck students, he explains that “Architecture is a mirror that reflects the harmony and balance present in the world, it is a conversation with God.”

It would be incomplete to talk of Shafak’s characterisations in The Architect’s Apprentice, without mention of her characterisation of the beautiful city. Istanbul comes to life with each new chapter, from the perfumed corridors of the Sultan’s Palace to its mysterious close-packed streets. People from all walks of life live in the pages; Sultans and galley slaves, viziers and gypsies, ambassadors and artists, animals and their caretakers, and, of course, the chief architect and his four apprentices. Shafak brings Sinan’s architectural creations to life with her lovingly described details – Istanbul’s slender minarets, the Sultan’s palace, sunlit porticos, carved marble and soaring domes.

The Architect’s Apprentice is a wonderful novel. Shafak’s uncanny ability to portray love and faith through a beautiful use of language tugs at readers’ heartstrings.

He was losing his faith in his workmanship. Little did he know, back then, that the worth of one’s faith depended not on how solid and strong it was, but on how many times one would lose it and still be able to get it back.

Shafak has, yet again, succeeded in producing a piece of work that transports the reader to a completely different reality and experience. The book speaks of politics, history, philosophy, religion, flourishing architecture and the familiar struggle for personal identity. And, to sum it all up, it tells of Janah’s quest to discover the centre of the universe, which,

Is neither in the East nor in the West. It is where one surrenders to love.

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