Growing up in Arizona, Armanoush (Amy) Tchakhmakhchian has been ever aware of her distinctive Armenian heritage.
As she grows older, she's always conscious of her fragmented childhood but unable to find
the sense of continuity that she so richly craves.
Rose, Amy's American mother, has married Mustafa Kazanci, a young Turk transplanted to Arizona by his family back in Istanbul in the hope that he will be spared the bad omen that has fallen upon every
other man in the Kazanci family.
Meanwhile, Barsam, Amy's Armenian father, has since relocated to San Francisco.
The fact that a Turk is currently raising his daughter - and that Barsam is doing nothing about it –
provides a constant source of displeasure for his family.
In Istanbul, the young Asya grows up listening to the music of Johnny Cash, the identity of her father shrouded in secrecy, forced to call her mother "aunt" Zeliha, while also labeled a "bastard" by the world around her. Zeliha, with her "frizzy raven-black hair, and her nose ring," and her natural propensity to rebelliousness frustrates her sisters and her mother.
In America, Amy, unable to put up with her mother's encapsulating universe, feels like she's on parade in San Francisco and that something is absent
- that part of her identity is missing. "I need to find my Armenianess first, even if this requires a voyage into the past," Amy says, so she clandestinely decides to take a trip to Istanbul.
In this city with its exquisite Bosphorus landscapes and its "hodgepodge of ten million lives," Amy attempts to find the answers to the sorrow of her ancestors and recognition for the loss, grief and pain of the Armenian genocide.
Amy and Asya are inexplicably pushed together. Surprisingly, they hit it off,
both of them intelligent and thoughtful. Asya takes Amy on a tour of her beloved city, each drawn to
the other by history and their respective families.
Author Elif Shafak weaves an exotic tale contrasting the past with the present while also unveiling the age-old cultural dissonance that exists between the Turks and Armenians. Although some of the historical subplots occasionally interrupt the pace of the novel, Shafak provides some rich insights into Turkish and Armenian myth and folklore, along with some of the most mouth-watering culinary delights of both cultures.
More importantly, Shafak sprinkles the story with an assortment of eccentric family members - on both sides of the
aisle - fluently displaying the various points of view of this complicated Armenian and Turkish
Buried within the narrative is a sharp dissection of race and nationality, with the Armenians determined to keep their memories of the genocide very much alive, while the average Turk seems content to deny such a notion of continuity with his or her ancestors.
As the tumultuous past clashes with an uncertain future, Amy and Asya become symbolic of the younger generation,
two unbridled innocents caught in the middle of their respective nationalities. Amy is drawn into the Kazanci household and ultimately seduced by the beatific chaos of Istanbul, while Asya searches for an identity far removed from
the world as she knows it.
In the process, both girls are forced to confront the notion of what it really means to be an Armenian or a Turk living in the modern, 21st-century world, and whether it is really better for them to discover more of their past,or in fact to simply know, or even acknowledge, as little of that past as possible.