The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak: Rich & Understated Literary Fiction

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The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak Book Cover Image


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Genre Literary Fiction

Format Paperback

Publication Date 2006

Length 360 pages

Content Warnings Abortion, references to genocide, violence, discrimination, references to suicide & mental illness, trauma

What It’s About

Raised by her mother and three aunts in a bustling Istanbul home, Asya is tired of negotiating their multiplying expectations and dreams of fleeing to lead her own, unfettered life.

Across the continents, in America, Armanoush is also struggling to deal with the demands of her large and dissonant family. When the two young women cross paths, they will force their families towards a reckoning with the past that has been almost a century in waiting.


First Chapter Impressions

I have never read a writing style that is so beautiful yet entirely unpretentious! For some reason, perhaps because Elif Shafak is so admired in high-brow literary circles, I expected something far more self-congratulating.

Instead, I was pleased to discover that the novel refuses to take itself too seriously, and it made me smile throughout with its compassionate and gently teasing humour. This quote summarises the irreverent tone:

“Plato clearly regards any actual physical contact as corrupt and ignoble because he thinks the true goal of Eros is beauty. Is there no beauty in sex? Not according to Plato. He is after ‘more sublime pursuits’. But if you ask me, I think Plato’s problem, like those of many others, was that he never got splendidly laid.”

Elif Shafak, ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’
The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak Book Review Pinterest Graphic

Final Page Reflections

Every review of The Bastard of Istanbul mentions how ambitious this novel is, and Shafak has been criticised for trying to cram too much into a relatively short book. For me, though, the story’s abundance helped make it a joy to read.

While the narrative traverses decades within paragraphs, I never felt like more depth was needed. Instead, readers are given snapshots of the most poignant moments that make up the characters’ lives. The number of characters could get a little overwhelming at times, but the focus on Asya and Armanoush, the two women of the youngest generation in their respective families, really anchored the story.


The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak Mood Cloud


Diversity and Representation

I have read few books set in Turkey, and I loved being engulfed by the vibrancy and discordance of Istanbul. Plus the descriptions of food were so indulgent! Alongside these lighter cultural references, I absorbed a fascinating and disturbing insight into elements of history that I had never heard of before, such as the Armenian genocide.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak Quote


  • Family
  • History
  • Nationality
  • Identity & belonging
  • Collective guilt
  • Responsibility
  • The female body

Beyond the Book

The Bastard of Istanbul wrestles with questions of how we face up to and reckon with our collective national past, especially if that past has wreaked injustice and violence. While these issues are explored through the lens of Turkish history, they remain palpably relevant to a host of other nations – not least to my own country of Britain and its unspoken colonial past.

Discussion Questions

If you’re reading The Bastard of Istanbul as a book club pick or just looking to ponder the story in a little more depth, these questions should help get you started:

1. The novel explores collective national histories throughout, from conversations with grandparents to online chat room debates. Do you think the responses to the past differed between generations?

2. Which character would you have liked to have seen more of in the story, and why?

3. Relationships between mothers and daughters are a major theme in the novel. How did the bond between Asya and her mother Zeliha compare with that of Armanoush and Rose?


Favourite Quote

“Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.”

~ Elif Shafak, ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’

Read If You’re looking for a rich yet understated literary fiction novel with historical preoccupations.

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You may also like: The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch.

Have you read The Bastard of Istanbul or any other novels by Elif Shafak? Do you have any other historical literary fiction recommendations? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!

8 thoughts on “The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak: Rich & Understated Literary Fiction”

    1. Thank you so much Saima! 🥰 This was my first book by Elif Shafak but I’ll definitely be reading others – her writing style is so unique and beautiful. I hope you enjoy the books if you do check them out! 📚❤️ X x x

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review! I’ve been meaning to try this author for a while. I am most tempted by 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, but this one sounds good as well. Sometimes, it does annoy me, when the author tries to cover too much ground, because I want to explore each topic properly. I guess, it all depends on the book, writing, context, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind comment! This was my first book by Elif Shafak but now I’ll definitely be keen to read others, including 10 Minutes 38 Seconds. The Bastard of Istanbul is certainly a very ambitious book but for me it still worked really well and at no point felt too superficial! 📚❤️ X x x

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much May! I’d definitely recommend The Bastard of Istanbul, I really hope you enjoy it. I’ll be reading more books by Elif Shafak soon too! 📚❤️ X x x

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, it’s so gorgeous! I’d definitely recommend the book and I hope you love it as much as I did if you decide to read it 📚❤️ X x x


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