Review: The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

20 Books of Summer 2020: Book 4

Before I tell you anything about Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice, do you think Jahan is receiving good advice in this scene:

Davud said, “Congratulations, novice! The master only sends his favourites to the old goat.”
As pleased as he was to hear this, Jahan felt a pang of unease.
“Don’t be humble next to him,” said Nikola. “Show him how much you know. He’ll like that.”
Yusuf smiled in agreement.
“Don’t forget to shout. Simeon is deaf as a log,” said Davud (146-147)

You don’t need to know anything about the book’s settings or characters to know that Jahan shouldn’t greet Simeon by shouting pompous things at him, but that’s what he does.

Jahan arrives in Istanbul as a twelve-year-old boy accompanying a gift for the sultan: a white elephant named Chota. As Chota’s trainer, Jahan lives on the edges of palace life and falls in love with the sultan’s daughter, Mihrimah. The novel spans many years and Jahan eventually works with Mimar Sinan, the chief architect. At first, it’s because Chota can move heavy loads, then Jahan becomes one of Sinan’s four apprentices (leading to the scene that opens this review).

In the early chapters, Jahan’s gullibility makes sense—he’s a child and functionally alone in a new city—but he retains this quality throughout the book. After a while, his success seems less to do with him and more to do with the plot. An entire character (Balaban) exists to save him from trouble. When Jahan is stuck in a frozen lake, Balaban appears on the shore. When Jahan is in jail, Balaban’s in the next cell with a key. Of course I didn’t want anything bad to happen to Jahan, but Balaban’s appearances bug me because they highlight a repetitive sequence of events: obstacle > ally appears > Jahan squeaks by. Even the most high-stakes obstacles are reduced to minor worries by their simplistic resolutions.

The primary strength of this book is the loving way it describes Istanbul and its phenomenal architecture. It’s like a walking tour of the city in the 1500s. In her “Acknowledgements,” Shafak admits playing with the historical timeline a little because there were buildings she wanted to fit into the plot at specific points. I don’t mind this kind of inaccuracy, though, because she’s transparent about it and the construction is the one thing that develops Jahan’s character and gives a sense of the passage of time. Shafak doesn’t attribute projects to Sinan that he wasn’t involved in; she just switches their order. Given that so many decades pass over the course of the novel, it’s a shame that time is marked by the construction of massive mosques, and not noticeable changes in Jahan’s character. There were two moments—when he speaks Italian and when it’s mentioned his hair is going grey—that forced me to remember that time had actually passed, even though he was otherwise indistinguishable from the person he was before he was educated and employed by Sinan.

Overall: 3.9 (out of 5.0) I enjoyed this book, but it lacked momentum. The sequence of obstacles and fast resolutions keeps events from building into arcs. Istanbul is described in such lively, expansive terms that the story had room for something truly epic.

Previously on

Books read, reviews coming soon

  • Florida by Lauren Groff
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Reading in progress

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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