A rich and sumptuous historical novel that is both sweeping and intimate.
Authors who write historical fiction often have strike a balance between being accurate to their chosen period, and developing a distinctive style, between demonstrating proficient knowledge of history and crafting a compelling narrative. Fortunately for her readers, Elif Shafak has no such problems. In ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ she uses all of the best gifts a writer can utilize to present a celebration of knowledge and the human spirit, set against one of the most colorful periods in world history.
The story begins in 1540, at the height of the Ottoman Empire’s power. Jahan, a young boy from Hindustan (India), travels to Istanbul to present a fabulous gift to the Sultan – a white elephant named Chota. Unbeknownst to everyone, Jahan has been coerced into thievery by a vicious pirate who desires a share of the Sultan’s wealth. Jahan finds himself in the royal menagerie, where he meets the beautiful Princess Mihramah, developing an infatuation with her which will prove transformative throughout his life. Jahan and Chota are soon thrust into war, where they meet Sinan, the royal architect, a man of endless brilliance and profound humility. Sinan takes Jahan under his tutelage, as the decades roll by Istanbul changes and Jahan along with it. As they construct one iconic building after another, Sinan imparts upon his pupil the secrets of worldly beauty and the keys to a living a meaningful existence.
There is no overarching plotline throughout the novel. Rather, Jahan’s journey is captured in several key episodes of his life, some spanning only a few pages, others take up multiple chapters. Following a single protagonist over the course of a lifetime can, in the wrong hands, result in a tedious, meandering narrative. Luckily for her readers, Safak is able to inject enough sensitivity and emotional flexibility into Jahan’s character to make his a compelling and uniquely human journey. Sinan takes Jahan in when he is at his most vulnerable, notices the cracks in his spirit and seeks to repair them. What makes Jahan a particularly relatable character is that he is neither a hero nor an anti hero; he does not quest for anything, nor does he seek to rebel against the world. Rather, his journey is about learning to accept his place in the universe. It has been said that when we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change. ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ understands this, and like many other stories which deal with spiritual growth features a protagonist who has seen the worst life has to offer. Over the course of the novel, Jahan is forced to watch his mother marry his torturous uncle, denied any opportunity to express his true feelings for the woman he loves, and thrown in jail for no crime but having ambition. Jahan’s passion for his work and studies acts as a salve against the lacerations on his spirit, healing him, and making him stronger as well. What is more, it is in the scenes where Jahan is working that Safak demonstrates herself to be a wise and well-educated person, expertly enlightening discussions of art, history, and philosophy into her dialogue.
The most fascinating way in which Safak explores Jahan’s spiritual development is through his relationship with Chota. In all the world’s mythologies, animals, being closer to nature, are viewed as bridges between the material and meta physical worlds. So intense is the love Jahan has for Chota, that the purity of the elephant’s soul enters his, awakening him to the beauty of life, and giving him the strength to persevere along the journey of life.
‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ is – and I don’t use this term liberally – a rare gem, a piece of contemporary fiction which is both entertaining and profound; as heartbreaking as it is enlightening. Reading this novel is like being in the presence of a worldly sage, sitting and listening to them impart wisdom of the greatest truth. It has a certain energy running through it, a spiritual presence in its pages that makes readers feel connected to the soul of humanity itself.