The Oracle of Stamboul

In this richly-flavored, fabulistic first novel, the vividly-imagined Eleanora Cohen—born in Romania in 1877—stows away along with her rug-trader father and heads (in hiding, sustained by a crate of caviar that was destined for the Sultan) from the Romanian city of Constanta to 19th-century "Stamboul." There she discovers, alongside the intricate loveliness of Ottoman Istanbul, her own oracular powers and prodigious intelligence. This is a great thing for the bookish Eleanora, who has fled a domineering stepmother and a forbidding village. She blooms as the wealthy Moncef Bey, a friend of her father's, exposes her to luxuries (and books) she had never imagined. But all is not well in Istanbul: when her father dies unexpectedly in a boat crash, Eleanora is left in Bey's household, nearly alone in the world. Heartbroken, she retreats into silence she will not be able to keep for long. Indeed, mysterious plots and counterplots swirl around Eleanora, and it is her destiny, it seems, to unravel them. Istanbul is rife with internal conflicts, and not even members of her new household are as they seem. Her gift for unusual insight is soon called upon, not only to interpret her new neighbors but also to navigate world events for no less than the Sultan himself. 

 

Oddly, this book's primary charm—its fairy tale quality—is what's least well-developed in the end. There's a sense that the magic that surrounds both Eleanora's mysterious powers and Istanbul at large don't quite buttress each other—they never translate into the powerful story they have been hinting at. Still, the tapestry Lukas has woven offers an engrossing read for many of its nearly 300 pages, if only because, indeed, 19th-century Istanbul seems as likely a place as any for real magic to thrive.

 

Lukas is at his best reimagining Istanbul as the global center it has always been: in this novel he lushly paints the late-nineteenth-century moment, complete with trading Jews, well-meaning but possibly corrupt WASP missionaries, and fascinating but internally competitive Muslim intellectuals—all of whom try to use their perches in this ancient city to influence the wider world. Meanwhile, Lukas's landscape itself is just plain fun to absorb. Here's the novel overlooking Galata Bridge and capturing Istanbul's heat: 

Summer could be found in the sticky smell of cherry sherbet, in roast squab, and in rotting loquats. Like a freshly tanned hide pulled tighter and tighter, each day was perceptibly longer than the previous… the straights were busy with migratory birds. Wave after wave of hawk, stork, swallow and cormorant flocked up the Bosporus on their way to old breeding grounds in Europe…

The fabulous Eleanora, who is charming but a bit far-fetched, turns out to be something of a red herring. What's delicious (and indeed Turkishly delightful) about this book is its sumptuous setting. It makes those of us who have been to Istanbul want to go back, and those who haven't wish once again to go. 

April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

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