I’m a history buff, which is one of the reasons I enjoy Jenny White‘s novels.
She is intimately familiar with the history and culture of Istanbul and Turkey, having lived and studied here for years in connection with her work in social anthropology.
Her first novel, The Sultan’s Seal, introduces Kamil Pasha, the Ottoman magistrate, orchid collector, aesthete and eligible bachelor who works to untangle the mysteries of the murder of a young, blonde English governess in the imperial harem.
The story draws you into the heart of 19th-century Istanbul, which is to say the heart of Ottoman Turkey, at a critical time: some in the empire see threats to its existence posed by the march of progress, others cling ferociously to the empire’s glorious past and thus imperil the future. We know the outcome. They did not, andJenny White captures this tension admirably.
As a writer, I admire the author’s sensitive, evocative descriptions of the city, its natural beauty, its contradictions both subtle and overt.
Jenny White sees Istanbul at its best and worst, as she does its people, their hearts and desires.
Decadent? No more decadent, perhaps, than the human heart itself.
The Sultan’s Seal, by Jenny White
New York& London: W W Norton & Company, 2006
ISBN 978-0-393-06099-3, 352 pages, US$24.95
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