Defne Suman’s epic historical novel The Silence of Scheherazade chronicles the fall of the Ottoman Empire as experienced by four Turkish families.
Dense with rich descriptions and interwoven narrative threads, much like a tapestry that overflows its loom, the novel includes beautiful moments alongside tragic ones. Multiple characters share the narrative, including Greek Panagiota, who mourns a conscripted sweetheart, and an Armenian midwife, Meline, who is party to Panagiota’s illegitimate birth. Scheherazade herself, of The Arabian Nights, spends much of the book mute due to trauma; this irony is resolved when she finally decides to narrate her own story, thereby earning her place as a great storyteller.
The book’s view of what life was like for people in Ottoman times, who fell into various social classes, is multifaceted. European settlers in Smyrna—including solitary Edith, whose hashish habits and other indiscretions form a backbone of the plot—toast each other with imported champagne even as their Turkish, Greek, and Armenian servants whisper about incoming soldiers. Despite rapid regime changes, locals continue to prepare pastries in the kitchen.
In addition to the religious and ethnic conflicts, the once peaceful, bountiful shores of Smyrna face rapes and massacres during and after World War I. The narrative bounces around in time, visiting points in 1905, when one of the characters is born; in 1919, when the Greek army occupies Smyrna; and 1922, when the Turks retake Smyrna, burning much of the area. Though the timelines are at first difficult to sort, they fall into place at the end, which is satisfying and resonant, but also unsettling, as it’s marked by violence and destruction.
The Silence of Scheherazade is a magnificent and illuminating historical novel concerned with every day life in the diverse Ottoman Empire.
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