When I was working as an architect, a lot of people had recommended this book to me. I reluctantly picked it, but eventually bought it out of curiosity. I have read two other books by Shafak, Forty Rules of Love and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, and both books I enjoyed, but in parts. Shafak is no doubt a very good writer. However, I wouldn’t say I would be running out to get the next book she comes out with.
That is the same feeling I had when I finished The Architect’s Apprentice. Just like in Rules of Love, the novel in parts were much better than the story as a whole. I didn’t really care much about the main protagonist, or the other characters in this book, which sort of disconnected me from really following their lives. I enjoyed reading about the elephant more than I did about the other people.
Several reviews have also pointed out that because of translating this novel from Turkish to English, a lot of the essence have disappeared. The power of her words, the detailed descriptions, the emotional moments, all become lacklustre in English.
However, what really kept me interested were all the glory and grandeur of the Islamic architecture, and this is precisely where Shafak excels with her story telling, in her descriptions of the way the mosques, bridges and madrassas are constructed, the way entire projects are managed and finally the rewarding experience of seeing the erection and finishing of the project.
This is where the architect in me was awake and fully invested. It felt like going down a rich and detailed history class of Islamic architecture, and how they came about and what it was like to construct grandiose projects during the Ottoman Empire.
The year is 1540, during the Ottoman Empire, and young Indian Jahan, en elephant trainer, is sent to Istanbul. His job entails looking after the Sultan’s elephant, called Chota, and also spends in getting to know the rest of Sultan’s menagerie. So it happens that Jahan starts to fall in love with the Sultan’s daughter Princess Mihrimah.
Jahan’s education at the palace, the princess’ fondness for him, leads him to be employed by the Ottoman Empire’s chief architect, Mimar Sinan. Jahan gets the job to be his apprentice. Jahan witnesses some of the most marvellous construction to take place in Istanbul, namely the Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques.
However, between the four apprentices, of which Jahan is one, jealousy starts to surface. Rage, competiton, envy up until this point was just boiling under the surface, but now they come to the forefront.
The rest of the story unfolds as we follow Jahan navigate the dangerous path he is upon, encountering hostile people and friendly people, challenges on construction projects and working for the Islamic world’s greatest architect, all the while balancing his feelings for the princess.
Elif Shafak writes well. I have to give her credit for writing a very ambitious novel, which mixes fact with fiction, deals with science versus religion, the powers of hierarchy and the progressive culture of Istanbul under Ottoman Empire. There were moments when I thought about architect Sinan and wondered whether he would have actually spoken like the way Shafak makes him speak. It did spark some interest in me to read up in further details on what made Sinan one of the world’s greatest architect.
Again, I couldn’t have care much for Jahan. He started to feel like a tag along character to the main plot. A lot of the side characters didn’t feel very important to me. At times, the elephant Chota, would upstage these side characters.
At the end of it all, I felt like I had a wonderful one week travel experience to the city of Istanbul under Ottoman Empire, and met all these different types of people from all backgrounds and faiths, living in the city. It was indeed a beautiful experience to witness the construction of majestic structures for which Istanbul is famous today.