All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Silence Of Scheherazade by Defne Suman

on June 30, 2022

The Silence Of Scheherazade
Defne Suman (translated by Betsy Göksel)
Head Of Zeus
2021, 512p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}: Set in the ancient city of Smyrna, this powerful novel follows the intertwining fates of four families as their peaceful city is ripped apart by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

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.

Every now and then I read a book which reinforces again, how poor my historical knowledge is. I’d honestly never heard of Smyrna and this time is definitely not something that I was ever taught in school. The city of Smyrna is now known as Izmir and is in modern-day Turkey. Prior to WWI, it was an ethnically diverse city of people of Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Levantine (which I also had to look up!) and other different origins, an important port on the Aegean Sea. After the war, when the Allies were planning to carve up the Ottoman Empire, the city was originally promised (by the English I think) to go back to the Greeks, who occupied it and installed a military government. However the Turkish military entered the city in 1922 and as a result, fires broke out in both the Greek and Armenian quarters. The resulting deaths were anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 citizens and thousands more (anywhere from 50,000 to 400,000) fled the city, including British, Greek and American soldiers.

This book begins in 1905 with the birth of a baby in a secluded room somewhere in the city at the same time that a man arrives from foreign shores. From there it kind of splits to follow several different people in different parts of the city throughout the years until the post-war period of turmoil as the city is handed to the Greeks but then they are unable to protect the city from the approaching Turkish army. Two of our main characters are Edith Lamarck, the daughter of a wealthy French family and Panagiota, a teenager at the time of the onset of the war, who is a daughter of ethnic Greeks and straining against the confines her mother puts upon her, after believing Panagiota to have died during her labour. Panagiota is aware that she seems responsible for mother’s happiness and at times, this puts her at odds with her mother as Panagiota wants her freedom and her mother would much rather keep her close and protected, especially as Panagiota grows more beautiful and the turbulent international situation brings more danger to their doorstep. As well as Edith, Panagiota and occasionally another character or two, we also have Scheherazade, a young woman who was found in a backyard with severe burns to her legs after the fires in 1922. She is mute but she is telling the story and eventually, all the threads tie themselves together to provide the whole picture.

For the most part, I thought this was a really intriguing story detailing a time in pretty recent history that I didn’t not know anything about. It was great to read about the city, about the different quarters and its history and how the war affected it and how it didn’t end in 1919. I thought a lot of that was done quite well but I wouldn’t particularly say that I enjoyed the characters. Edith was a struggle to get to know from a reader’s perspective and the fact that she spends almost all of the book quite addicted to opium doesn’t make that easy. She’s raised in wealth and privilege but never quite fits in with what her mother wants for her and her world is rocked by news of a mysterious inheritance. From there Edith chooses to live as an independent woman, who has a lover but never marries and who doesn’t conform to societal norms. However I wouldn’t really say that I connected to her or felt like I knew her or that I understood her. A few reveals quite late in the book made things more clear in some ways but Edith was still definitely a struggle and her opium haze definitely prevented her from engaging with the world, seemingly by choice.

Panagiota was easier to read, she was a young woman who wanted the boy she liked to notice her and her parents to stop treating her like a child – sometimes things don’t change over time! I wasn’t sure of the point of her narrative at first, other than to provide a different perspective of the events from a different, less sheltered part of the city I suppose and there’s a section in the middle where it started to become quite difficult to keep track of the time and location and character and a lot of things got quite muddled for a bit. I think this book might’ve been a fraction too long and the middle could’ve been tidied up just a little, for clarity and conciseness but when we got to the point in the story where everything was being put together, I was definitely more invested and really enjoyed those reveals and the way in which everything wove together and made all of the little mysteries suddenly crystal clear.

A solid, enjoyable read rich with history and a little bit of the unusual.


Book #102 of 2022

The Silence Of Scheherazade is book #32 of my 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader

It is also book #8 of my 22 in 2022 Challenge that I set for myself.

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