The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak review – architecture as metaphor for building lives

The sultan’s court in 16th-century Istanbul provides the setting for this multilayered tale of ties that bind and grand designs

Architecture is a powerful motif in Elif Shafak’s intricate, multilayered new novel, which excels both in its resplendent details and grand design. It is not only the construction of the Ottoman empire’s architectural wonders that is vividly evoked, for this beautifully written story also asks: what is the best way to build our lives? And what might cause the lives we have crafted to crumble at the core?

Loping through the finely wrought narrative is a beguiling baby elephant “as white as boiled rice” who becomes best friend to 12-year-old Jahan, for it is Jahan who helped its difficult birth (“How could he persuade the baby this world was worth being born into?”), helped feed it and named it “Chota”, meaning small. Living with a brutal stepfather and grieving for his dead mother, Jahan finds more warmth and tenderness in the animal than the humans.

The ties that bind crisscross the complex story, and when the elephant is ordered to be sent as a gift to the sultan, such is the bond between boy and beast that Jahan becomes a stowaway, voyaging with Chota on the vessel from the port of Goa to Turkey and the sultan’s palace. His sister wonders what advice their late mother might have given Jahan: “Whatever you do, she would have said, don’t hurt anyone and don’t let anyone hurt you.” But pain, both physical and emotional, is pervasive.

Sudden changes of fortune abound and Jahan, who soon falls in love with the sultan’s daughter, becomes an apprentice to the sultan’s architect, Sinan, who teaches him how to build “harmony and balance” within and without, how each part is connected to the whole (here exquisitely demonstrated), and how “to rebuild himself, again and again, out of the ruins”.

“Destroying a bridge was easier than building it,” Jahan discovers: it takes time, skill and patience to create, yet only moments to demolish. Shafak excellently explores metaphorical bridge-building, too, between classes and cultures. This edifying, emotionally forceful novel shows how hate and envy destroy, and how love might build the world anew.

The Architect’s Apprentice is published by Viking (£14.99). Click here to buy it for £11.99


Anita Sethi

The GuardianTramp

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