Publisher: Harper (HarperCollins imprint)
Pub date: 8 Feb 2011
There are a few reasons that this book is going on my favourites list – one is the magical point in time and geography that the story takes place, and the other is the brilliant writing. And when the love of reading and knowledge-seeking is a central theme in the story, there is no doubt that I’m going to love it.
Synopsis (from marketing material)
Late in the summer of 1877, as Tsar Alexander II’s Royal Cavalry descends on the defenseless Ottoman outpost of Constanta, a flock of purple and white hoopoes suddenly appears over the town, and Eleonora Cohen is ushered into the world by a mysterious pair of Tartar midwives who arrive just minutes before her birth. But joy is mixed with tragedy, for Eleonora’s mother dies soon after the birth.
Raised by her doting father Yakob, a carpet merchant, and her stern, resentful stepmother, Ruxandra, Eleonora’s early years are spent daydreaming and doing housework and avoiding the wrath of her stepmother—until the moment she teaches herself to read, and her father recognizes that she is an extraordinarily gifted child, a prodigy.
When Yakob sets off by boat for Stamboul on business, eight-year old Eleonora stows away in one of his trunks. There in the house of her father’s business partner Moncef Bey, a new life awaits. Books, backgammon, beautiful dresses and shoes, markets swarming with color and life, the imperial capital overflows with elegance and mystery.
This is a book to be savoured. I am not someone who enjoys the literary aspect of the writing if there is no story, but in this case, for me, the plot was secondary. That is not to say that there is no plot or that I didn’t like the story, but that was not the main course.
Lukas spins magic with words and it is pure pleasure to read and re-read certain parts of the book just for the sheer love of language. The author has used this very active and colourful backdrop of Stamboul (Istanbul) during a period of strife to weave the story of Eleonora and the Sultan. Eleonora’s gift – her knowledge of languages and her ability to decipher code bring her to the attention to many of the political players in Stamboul including the Sultan himself.
On the one hand, we have Eleonora. This young knowledge seeker is a prodigy who has a difficult time at home. Her strict aunt Ruxandra is afraid that reading and education will ruin Eleonora’s life, since all a woman needs to know is how to run a household. Her father, while not fully in agreement, is afraid that Ruxandra might be right.
On the other hand, we have the Sultan Abdulhamid II, the Padishah, Emperor. A just, wise and humble king, he has the difficult job keeping his kingdom safe in the midst of war and strife and keeping together his multi-ethnic empire.
Can Eleonora, an eight-year old really give him the solutions he needs? Can she work out all the combinations and twists and turns it will take to guarantee a favorable outcome for the Sultan and his kingdom?
I did not love the way this story ended and feel like the author took the easy way out. While I wish it has ended differently, the magic of the story and language more than make up for it.
I am now a fan, and await Michael David Lukas’ next book with impatience.
Fans of literary fiction, students of creative writing, lovers of magic realism and historical fiction should not miss The Oracle of Stamboul.
*See my Rating policy