‘On an orange-tinted evening in September 1905, Scheherazade is born to an opium-dazed mother in the ancient city of Smyrna. At the very same moment, a dashing Indian spy arrives in the harbour with a secret mission from the British Empire. He sails in to golden-hued spires and minarets, scents of fig and sycamore, and the cries of street hawkers selling their wares. When he leaves, seventeen years later, it will be to the heavy smell of kerosene and smoke as the city, and its people, are engulfed in flames.
But let us not rush, for much will happen between then and now. Birth, death, romance and grief are all to come as these peaceful, cosmopolitan streets are used as bargaining chips in the wake of the First World War.
Told through the intertwining fates of a Levantine, a Greek, a Turkish and an Armenian family, this unforgettable novel reveals a city, and a culture, now lost to time.’
Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman, published by Head of Zeus!
The Silence of Scheherazade is set in the city of Smyrna and follows the not entirely linear paths of four families as history unfolds and gradually reveals the ties between them, as well as the fate of the city that they call home and has seen much conflict and dispute. It’s a story grounded in the very real history of Smyrna (later Izmir), but has an air of the magical and mythical about it, especially in its references to stories, voices, and the way the non-linear structure is excellently exploited to expose some of the tale’s most precious secrets.
The story ostensibly begins with Edith, or perhaps it is that she, in a manner of speaking, repeats the history of her own mother, a young Levantine French woman who cares little for social rules and what is expected of her, despite the ‘best’ efforts of her aforementioned mother. She seeks independence and attempts to shrug off the rules her family would have her follow, and, once the opportunity presents itself, shortly becomes infamous in the wider community for her unwillingness to conform and her scandalous behaviour, such as her living alone as an unmarried woman and her choice of lover (not to mention her reported addiction to opium). It is she who is the mother of Scheherazade, and one of a cast of strong and prominent women from different walks of life, who demonstrate their strength in a variety of manners and scenarios, yet, ultimately, perhaps the key thread that binds them together is their capacity for love, whether that is for family, friends or homeland. Through the lives of these women and their families, The Silence of Scheherazade explores issues of identity, motherhood, sisterhood and what it is to be a woman in a land of conflict, but to name a few of the subjects that are considered over the course of the story.
Scheherazade’s story is not hers alone, but that of those who have shaped who she is, whether deliberately or otherwise, and the manner in which almost the entire cast is written about makes it feel as if there are no minor characters or those which have simply been added for the purpose of moving the plot forward. There are multiple points of view in the novel, through which the reader learns about a broad range of characters, and enough time is spent with each that even those that have only a few details revealed about them feel part of the fabric of the story and significant to a character who may have a larger role, or one that we have spent more time with. In a fashion, there are a thousand and one stories that are a part of Scheherzade’s and those of others, representing the impact that we have on each other’s lives and that parts of us will always be because of the influence that others have had on us.
As the lives of the families stretch on, the tale doesn’t shy away from showing the darkness of conflict, from the physical brutality and treatment of civilians, to the fate of young people drawn into fighting. There are moments that are very difficult to read and that may well make the reader flinch, but that this is the response to these moments is a reflection upon the quality of the writing and emotive impact of the scenes that unfold. There is nothing gratuitous of this nature – only a realistic representation of the situations that civilians would have found themselves in and a sensitively handled understanding of the fear and uncertainty surrounding such events, especially for women at the mercy of enemy forces.
The Silence of Scheherazade is a wonderfully crafted and hard-hitting read that’s most definitely one to look out for for fans of historical fiction and the nature of storytelling. Highly recommended! Thank you to Head of Zeus for sending me a proof for review and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour.