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The Best Books of Elif Shafak (British-Turkish Novelist)

Elif Shafak has tackled everything from Turkish history to Sufi poets and honour killings in her work, which has encompassed 18 books.

The author holds a PhD in political science and has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK, including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow. She’s has given global TED talks on the politics of fiction and the revolutionary power of diverse thought.

Shafak writes in both Turkish and English, and has authored novels and non-fiction, so it might be confusing to know where to start with her books, especially ahead of her forthcoming novel The Island of Missing Trees. Luckily, we have you covered with our guide…

The Architect’s Apprentice (2013)

This novel was chosen by the Duchess of Cornwall as one of the first books to be included in her new online book club, The Reading Room. 

The Architect’s Apprentice is set in 16th Century Istanbul, where a stowaway named Jahan arrives with a gift for the Sultan; the boy is alone in a foreign land, with nothing to his name except Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie.

The book follows Jahan as he rises from his lowly origins to the highest ranks in the Sultan’s court, along the way meeting friends and courtiers, and a beautiful princess.

Writer Anita Sethi, reviewing the book in The Guardian, said: “This edifying, emotionally forceful novel shows how hate and envy destroy, and how love might build the world anew.”

The Bastard of Istanbul (2006)

Shafak has never shied away from tough topics in her fiction, and that’s not always been to the liking of some people, including, when it came to The Bastard of Istanbul, the Turkish authorities.

The novel follows Asya Kazanci, who lives with her extended family in Istanbul. Due to a mysterious curse, all the men in her family die in their early 40s, so the house is full of women.

When Asya’s Armenian-American cousin Armanoush comes to stay, long hidden family secrets connected with Turkey’s turbulent past begin to emerge.

In the novel, one of Shafak’s characters referred to the massacre of Armenians in the first world war as genocide, prompting a charge of “insulting Turkishness” to be brought against her, although Shafak was acquitted when the charges were dropped at the prosecutor’s request. 

The Forty Rules of Love (2009)

Named one of the BBC’s 100 Novels that Shaped the WorldThe Forty Rules of Love is about Ella Rubinstein, a woman who has everything that should make her fulfilled: a husband, three teenage children and a pleasant home. But she still feels an emptiness that was once filled by love.

When Ella finds a manuscript about the 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi and Shams of Tabriz and his 40 rules of life and love, she embarks on a journey to meet the author of the mysterious work. The Forty Rules of Love is a dual narrative, following Ella in the present day and Rumi and Shams of Tabriz in the 13th Century.

In a review of the book, The Independent said: “With its timely, thought-provoking, feel-good message, The Forty Rules of Love deserves to be a global publishing phenomenon.” 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (2019)

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World tells the story of Tequila Leila in the minutes after her death.

Each minute leads Tequila Leila to a new memory, from her childhood to the cardamom coffee she shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Intertwined with Tequila Leila’s story are those of her friends, a set of “undesirables” who are now desperately trying to find her.

The New York Times’ review called the book “a bold, subversive, excellent novel”, while novelist Mirza Waheed, reviewing the book in The Guardian, said “Shafak takes a piercing, unflinching look at the trauma women’s minds and bodies are subjected to in a social system defined by patriarchal codes”. 

Three Daughters of Eve (2016)

Shirin, Peri and Mona – the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused – were best friends until a scandal tore them apart. Some years later, on a spring evening in Istanbul, Peri is on her way to a dinner party when her handbag is stolen, shifting her world violently.

She starts to doubt how she got to her current position, reflecting on her traumatic Istanbul childhood, student years in Oxford, and the rebellious professor who led her and her best friends to question everything. Over the course of one night, Peri tries to make sense of a past she has tried to forget.

Writer Arifa Akbar, reviewing Three Daughters of Eve in the Financial Times, said: “Three Daughters of Eve is an intelligent, fierce and beguiling read that makes complicated theological questions readable and relevant.” 

Honour (2011)

Set in Turkey and London in the 1970s, Honour is about Pembe and Adem Toprak, who leave Turkey to make a new life for their family in the UK.

But the traditions and beliefs of their home come with them, carried in the bodies of their children, Iskender and Esma. The Toprak children are trapped by their past mistakes, and find their lives torn apart by a brutal and chilling crime.

Kirkus Reviews said of Honour: “Shafak turns what might seem a polemic against honor killing in lesser hands into a searing but empathetic and ultimately universal family tragedy.”

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