If I were to have a guest over to my house—a friend, colleague, or peer—and, while scanning my bookshelves, said guest asked me for a recommendation, I would not steer them toward The Architect's Apprentice. Yet, if the same guest were to find the book on his or her own, I would be unable to dissuade them from reading it. So Elif Shafak's latest novel, The Architect's Apprentice, is that type of book—one which I can neither recommend nor discourage others from reading.
After a short prologue, insinuating possible mystical elements to come, Shafak opens her novel in Istanbul, 1574. The reader is introduced to Jahan, middle-aged and already a seasoned architect and elephant tamer; to his elephant, Chota; and to Jahan's master, the Chief Royal Architect, Sinan. The opening twenty pages are shrouded by mystery and suspense, culminating with Jahan and Sinan finding out a dirty secret about the Sultan—one that could easily cost them their lives. Then, as the reader is left questioning the fate of these two men, the narrative jumps back in time about thirty or forty years to when Jahan first left his home country and traveled to Istanbul.
Initially, I was fine with this structure. I realized I needed more of Jahan and his companions' histories to really care about their fate, so I played along, though always eager to get back to what I saw as a cliffhanger in 1574.
As a boy, Jahan, unable to part with Chota but eager to flee his home, stows away on the ship ordered with delivering the elephant to Istanbul's Sultan. Jahan is discovered, but of course not killed, and after promising to steal jewels and riches from the palace for the crooked Captain Gareth, Jahan is allowed to stay on the ship and be introduced to the Sultan as the elephant's tamer—despite the fact that he is unqualified for the job.
At this point, only a few pages into Jahan's backstory, a little voice popped into my head: "Don't worry," it chimed, "he's still alive in 1574." This same voice would pipe up often over the next two hundred sixty-four pages.
Jahan enters the palace afraid and untrained. He makes many mistakes, which for lesser characters in this story's Istanbul would result in death, but for Jahan seem to always somehow work out. And so the story goes. He falls in love with the unattainable princess. He becomes one of Sinan's four apprentices. He fears the Sultan, the Sultana, and the Grand Vizier. He fears the Chief White Eunuch. He fears the return of Captain Gareth—later referred to as "Captain Crazyhead." He fears being discovered as a fraud and a thief. Basically, for two hundred sixty-four pages, Jahan worries about things that never happen; many of which the reader knows will never happen, at least not before 1574, and herein lies the main problem with The Architect's Apprentice: no real tension.
Even when it comes to the horrors of this Istanbul, the reader is often told of these atrocities, but very rarely do we actually see the acts being fulfilled. Rather we see them almost come to fruition—Chota almost executes a man by trampling, two characters are nearly sexually assaulted, Jahan almost dies due to disease in a prison cell—only for the character in peril to be saved at the last moment. And after this structure continues to repeat itself, it becomes very clear that nothing terrible will ever befall Jahan, or any other major character for that matter. The only characters killed off abruptly are those we have been introduced to once, just enough to know their name and a little back-story. But they aren't the characters we care about. The characters we care about are floating through Istanbul in protective bubbles, unknown amongst themselves but painfully obvious to the reader.
After the second time I read about Jahan worrying, and consequently doing nothing, when unknown enemies sabotage Sinan's latest work, I stopped caring—it didn't seem like Jahan was all that worried either. Similarly, when Jahan and a fellow apprentice are robbed while traveling to Italy, they do very little to find the culprit. Accepting their fate, the two return to Istanbul, and the event is not mentioned again for some time.
Eventually the narrative catches up to 1574. There is one mention of the opening scene of the novel—one sentence at the end of a chapter, blink and you'll miss it—and that's it. Still, this leads to the final and best act of the novel. These hundred-or-so pages are where Jahan's growth as a man and character really seem to shine, as he sheds the skin of a naive, almost-too-perfect boy in a man's body, to become a fully rounded character and person. The many minor conflicts quickly forgotten earlier in the novel come full circle—the reader is finally given a small taste of the fantastical elements they were somewhat promised in the short prologue—and Shafak ties up all the loose ends, though many of them will leave the reader wishing they had cared about certain relationships more, namely the relationship between Jahan and the other three apprentices. These three characters are often seen but rarely heard. Shafak tells the reader of these characters' feelings, rather than allowing them to be expressed, and it leaves the characters rather hollow—until their moment in the spotlight arrives and the reader is asked to care about those they hardly know.
It was at this point, as the curtain came to a close on Istanbul, that I came to appreciate what Shafak was doing so well all along. I hadn't stopped to notice it: she had fully transported me to her Istanbul.
I have two rules when it comes to novels: the first, which is infuriating but has proven very useful, is that if I have read a certain percentage of the book—generally about 10 percent—and have not grown bored or disengaged, I will finish the book, no matter how painful the remaining 90 or so percent may be. The second rule is that, regardless of how I feel about a novel, within two to five years, I will pick it up and read it again. The Architect's Apprentice is a novel I know I will thoroughly enjoy when I re-read it. And it is one that I know many will enjoy upon their first read.
Indeed, the city and the history it holds are undoubtedly the backbone of this story, and with masterful prose Shafak paints a beautifully immersive Istanbul in which her characters and readers too might reside. Thus, a separate way to view the middle chunk of The Architect's Apprentice—one shorn of the expectations planted into my mind from the prologue and hype—came into focus: rather than focusing on Jahan's story, if the reader takes time in this section of the novel to appreciate Jahan as their eyes and ears, they will find themselves fully transported to this time of sultans. Shafak generously illustrates every aspect of her great city—the opium dens, the brothels, the palace, the slums. The reader will bear witness to the rise and fall of three Sultans, the construction of great mosques, bridges, and aqueducts, and the meticulously crafted fictional account of a real-life architect, Sinan. And this is without a doubt why many will praise Shafak's The Architect's Apprentice.
Perhaps if I had been able to approach this section with such a mindset, I would have walked away from The Architect's Apprentice with a different view. There were times when I tried. I told myself to enjoy the ride and appreciate the awe-inspiring creation of Istanbul through prose, but then I would be interrupted by phrases like, "Jahan leaped out, thanking his lucky stars," and "Nobody messed with Carnation Kamil Agha." And, while they were few and far between—the language felt well-judged throughout—these lines served as a constant reminder that in the end I just didn't care about the "conflicts" befalling the protagonist. "Don't worry," my mind kept reassuring me, "he's still alive in 1574."
Christopher Lombardo recently graduated from Western Connecticut State University, with a BA in Professional Writing. His poetry has been featured in Black and White: A Literary Journal, and he is currently an editorial intern at Cottage & Gardens Publications, as well as a freelance SEO copywriter and short fiction writer.