Review: Last Train to Istanbul

Posted 1 October, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 1 Comment

Last Train to Istanbul
By: Ayse Kulin
Format/Source: galley courtesy of Amazon Crossing via NetGalley

As the daughter of one of Turkey’s last Ottoman pashas, Selva could win the heart of any man in Ankara. Yet the spirited young beauty only has eyes for Rafael Alfandari, the handsome Jewish son of an esteemed court physician. In defiance of their families, they marry, fleeing to Paris to build a new life.

But when the Nazis invade France and begin rounding up Jews, the exiled lovers will learn that nothing—not war, not politics, not even religion—can break the bonds of family. For after they learn that Selva is but one of their fellow citizens trapped in France, a handful of brave Turkish diplomats hatch a plan to spirit the Alfandaris and hundreds of innocents, many of whom are Jewish, to safety. Together, they must traverse a war-torn continent, crossing enemy lines and risking everything in a desperate bid for freedom.

This title caught my attention for two reasons: 1) it’s set around and during World War Two, 2) I don’t know much about Turkey’s involvement or situation during World War Two and 3) I haven’t really read a novel by a Turkish author. I was approved of an ARC of this novel through the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This novel will be available on October 8th.

This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.

It was interesting to see Turkey’s perspective as World War TWo builds up and explodes across Europe. This novel interlays the personal drama of Selva and her family and the obstacles they face with the political situation and the actual figures involved in the diplomatic efforts. The latter provides context to Turkey’s political position and their relationships and concerns with the neighbouring powers. Selva’s perspective in particular provides the Jewish-Turkish perspective in France; I did not know there was such a population of Jewish-Turks during this period so it was interesting to see how the Turkish diplomatic corps tried to help their citizens. Their efforts were not only brave but also added to the suspense of the story. These chapters were especially tense to read because their experiences were very much like any other group of Jewish people faced against the Nazis and the Fascists during this time.

The events of World War Two and the treatment of the European Jews fit in with Selva’s personal story and her disagreements with her father and her family over the subject of religion. Turkey during this time was a republic, modern, looking forward and proud of their religious tolerance. Yet despite of these attitudes, there are prevalent attitudes of marrying within the same religion; it was frowned upon to marry someone of another religion, something which forced Selva and Rafael to move to France. The narrative on this subject of religion felt a tad bit preachy at one moment–it would have been more interesting had these views just played out through the characters–but it made up a very important aspect of the novel.

The character drama nonetheless was very interesting, especially as the reader learns more about what motivates most of the characters and what they are going through. I wish more time was spent on Selva and Sabiha’s father as he is a focal character to why Selva moved away. It also seemed as though Sabiha’s storyline was a little removed compared to everyone else, though she does frequently talk about Selva in her absence; her story just seemed more contained, focusing on the domestic lifestyle she leads and the problems she was going through connecting with her husband and her child and some underlying sense of dissatisfaction with her life. It did provide a nice break from the tension and anxiety that Selva was going through as France falls under the Vichy regime.

While Last Train to Istanbul was an interesting read, I did find it a little startling and disappointing that the story ended very abruptly at the end. On the one hand, had the story been told cinematically, it would have made for a lovely scene (and then just fade out) but after following these characters for so long, I would’ve wanted a bit more closure after that climactic moment, a bit more resolution to the outstanding issues that each character held against each other (not just Selva and her father and Sabiha and Selva but also Selva and her husband; a very interesting thought showed up amidst her story concerning the nature/progression of their relationship but it never went any further). Instead, the reader is left to speculate what happened afterwards. Nonetheless, readers who enjoy reading historical fiction set during World War Two and/or are looking to check out some Turkish titles may want to check this novel out.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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One Response to “Review: Last Train to Istanbul”

  1. Still hopping from Books on France….I’ve been reading a lot of World War II books lately so this would fit in. Turkey is a country I know little about.

    Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is my favorite fiction that I’ve read this year. I just read Rose Under Fire, the new book by the same author and it was also good. I’m currently reading Brave Genius, nonfiction, about Albert Camus and the activities surrounding him and others during WWII.

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