STARRED REVIEW
March 31, 2015

This novel is no white elephant

By Elif Shafak
Review by
Historical novels that use real people, eras and achievements as a springboard can sometimes become overworked lessons of the history on which they’re treading. Other times, they can be inspired, original works that remind us of both the importance of history and the timeless concerns of our own humanity. Thankfully, The Architect’s Apprentice is the latter.
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Historical novels that use real people, eras and achievements as a springboard can sometimes become overworked lessons of the history on which they’re treading. Other times, they can be inspired, original works that remind us of both the importance of history and the timeless concerns of our own humanity. Thankfully, The Architect’s Apprentice is the latter.

Set in a glorious age for the Ottoman Empire, Elif Shafak’s latest novel spans decades and follows the interwoven lives of the still-admired chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, Jahan, the Indian boy who would become his apprentice, and Chota, Jahan’s beloved white elephant who becomes part of the Sultan’s menagerie. Together, they are destined for greatness, and the construction of some of the most beautiful Ottoman structures in history. But their intertwined lives will also breed envy, tragedy, lies and countless surprises, as Jahan grows into a man headed for a destiny he might never have imagined.

Right away, Shafak’s prose delivers such a clear sense of place and time that you feel immersed in this lush segment of history in a warm and intriguing way. There’s a sense of magic to the way her words move from page to page, but also a sense of practicality, like an architect imagining every brick in a palace. Some novelists see their world so clearly that they can weave a sense of comfort, a sense that you’re in good hands, around the reader from page one, and Shafak is one such writer.

The Architect’s Apprentice succeeds because of that sense of being in good hands, but also because of Shafak’s passionate, far-reaching contemplations layered within the story. More than anything perhaps, this novel is a story of love, of finding it, losing it and feeling how it can twist and mold you into something else, even if that’s not for the better. It’s a powerful, dazzling novel, rooted in history but also in a sense of eternal human considerations, and it’s another triumph for Shafak.

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