Monthly Archives: April 2023

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak 

I just loved this book, enjoyed its length and the narrative drive, the characters and the setting. It was recommended to me by two readers who I respect and so I obtained a copy, despite being rather lukewarm about Elif Shafak’s most recent novel: The Island of Missing Trees. 

It’s a novel to immerse yourself in; to marvel at the events in Jahan’s life, the people he meets and the skills he develops. Among his most valued friends are Sinam, the revered architect to the Sultan, Chota the white elephant that he cares for, and the leader of the Gypsy band Balaban who rescues him from many scrapes. All this is against the background of Istanbul in the sixteenth century, when its power rivalled any in Europe, and it traded with lands far away. It was a city crammed to the limits, full of people of different faiths and backgrounds, and ruled over by the sultans who held unimaginable wealth.

The Architect’s Apprentice

The apprentice of the story is Jahan who finds himself in the post of elephant tamer/mahout in the Sultan’s palace. Jahan is a bit of a chancer and a bit of a thief, but he is genuinely fond of Chota the white elephant who he delivers to the Sultan’s menagerie and for whom he must care. Her learns the architect’s trade, but also humanity from Sinan.

We follow him through a century, mostly in Istanbul. With the elephant he goes to war, parades, and builds. He travels to Rome and he falls for the sultan’s daughter. His own origins are not quite clear, but along with a very diverse population he has found his way to Istanbul and must try to stay alive there. He is closely involved in building the many mosques, bridges, madrasas, caravanserai, alms houses and aqueducts that still survive in Istanbul. He lives with the other animal tamers by the menagerie and has a ringside view of the palace. He and his elephant are often involved in the conspiracies of the palace, including the bloodletting that surrounds the succession of each sultan. Early in the story, Chota and Jahan go to war with the army of Sultan Suleiman. 

Chota broke into a springy trot enjoying the open air and the steady march after months of being confined to the palace garden. From where he sat on his neck Jahan could see below and behind, astonished to find himself staring at a sea of bodies with no end in sight. He saw the camels carrying provisions and the oxen pulling cannons and catapults; the Halberdiers of the Tresses, with their hair dangling from their caps; the dervishes chanting their invocations; the agha of the Janissaries proudly sitting atop his stallion; the Sultan riding an Arab steed, encircled by guards on both sides – the left-hand archers to his left, the right-handed to his right. In front of him rode a standard-bearer carrying his flag of the seven horsetails.
Propping up their banners and horsetails-on-poles; hoisting lances, scimitars, hatchets, arquebuses, axes, javelins, bucklers, bows and arrows, thousands of mortals were forging ahead. Jahan had never seen so many together. The army was less a horde of men that one lump of giant. The beat of feet and hooves in tandem was hair-raising and stupefying at once. They proceeded uphill against the wind, slicing through the landscape like knife into flesh. (85)

The generosity, abundance and imagination of this novel, evident in the previous quotation, are quite delightful. It sprawls, it raises and destroys hopes. It is vivid and hugely enjoyable. It also often unbelievable, although rooted in a rather loose history. Cursed to live too long a life, Jahan ends up in Hindustan, where he helps the Shah build the Taj Mahal.

One of the most striking passages concerns the social outcomes of the plague that strikes Istanbul, and how the rich closet themselves, but are not able to protect themselves; how many die; the fear and ignorance that the plague carries with it. Ultimately it sets tribe against tribe, in a vivid foretaste of Covid.

Before the circumcision celebrations, the plague arrived. First appearing on the outskirts of the city, in the hovels by the port of Scutari, it spread faster than wildfire, jumping from one house to the next, the curse scattering in the wind. Death settled over Istanbul like a fog that wouldn’t lift, seeping through every home and crack. It fluttered about in the sea breeze, frothed in the yeast of bread, brewed in the thick, bitter coffee. Little by little people stopped going about; shrinking from gatherings, they sank into solitude. The splash of oars and the murmur of oarsmen could not be heard even on the quietest evenings. No one wished to journey from one shore to the other if they didn’t have to. Never had Istanbulites been so afraid of standing out in the crowd. Never had they been so afraid of offending God. (112)

Ultimately it is the generosity and belief in the community embodied by the architect Sinan, but also by the Gypsies, and by the many other lowly or disadvantaged people that provides the positive outlook of this splendid novel.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city.  I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters. Her strong themes include the necessity of people to move from one country to another, and to exploire the disorder created by humans.

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak, first published in 2014 by Penguin/Viking 456pp.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak on Bookword in August 2022 (shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022)

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Older Women writers – in demand or not?

Are older women writers in demand or are they ignored by the publishing industry? I read two articles recently which appear to offer opposite points of view on the subject of older women writers. One point of view is optimistic: 

… experts say: older writers are now at a premium – with radical, edgy women aged into their 80s particularly sought after. [Guardian 25.2.23]

The other suggests that the same old ageism/sexism is still operating against older women writers as it always has.

            … it seems many older women writers feel herded towards retirement before they’ve even got going. [Mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23] 

I note that in the first quotation, the experts were from the perspective of publishers and agents. The second quotation reports the experience of the writers. Some of the difference I am questioning may arise from these contrasting perspectives. But which is it – older women writers are in demand or they are not?

Older Women Writers are in Demand

To support the argument that older women, especially women in their 80s, are the writers most sought after by publishers, Amelia Hill, writing in the Guardian, assembles the following evidence. First the publishers themselves are keen to publish work by older writers, apparently. It began with the small, independent presses, but now they are all at it.

“The publishing world is working hard to normalise and celebrate the vast diversity of women over 45 and to value their collected, distilled wisdom, their lifetime of reading and radicalism that is not possible for younger writers.”

This is the view of Lisa Highton, an agent and former publisher, quoted in the article.

Elizabeth Strout

Second, she lists several notable older writers, such as Bonnie Garmus, whose debut novel Lessons in Chemistry has been such a success. Others are Miranda Cowley Heller, Jo Browning Wroe, Louise Kennedy, Joanna Quinn Nikki May and Shelley Read.

Ann Tyler

And why are publishers taking on these books? The reason is simple – they are following the money.

“The vast majority of books are bought by women aged 45 and above. They’re a hugely important demographic and increasingly want to see themselves represented in books.” [Lisa Highton]

Women Writers are overlooked by Publishers

Mslexia has the strapline: the magazine for women who write. In an article from Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) by Debbie Taylor called The Time of our Lives, she explores the issues. I find it strange that Amelia Hill makes no reference to this article when she wrote the piece reported above. 

In her article Debbie Taylor describes how attitudes to age are defeating women writers, for example many literary prizes are age limited, which mitigates against older women because they often start their careers later and are more likely to have interrupted careers. No-one would want to quarrel with strategies to encourage young writers, but it is hard for older writers to gain success and exposure with so few literary awards open to them.

Barred from a raft of high-status awards, patronised or parodied in fiction and rendered literally invisible of book covers, no wonder women writers feel marginalised and wary of submitting their work. 

She quotes a survey where 50% of 1700 writers believed that ageism was a factor in how they were treated by agents and editors and 21% had experienced ageism. With those views in mind she went on to challenge three myths about older writers:

  • Their work is conventional and old-fashioned,
  • They have shorter writing careers,
  • Only old people want to read books by (or about) old people.

Although highly critical of Martin Amis and publishing practice that discriminates against older people, Debbie Taylor notices that there is some movement.

The doors are ajar for older writers. It’s up to us to ram our trainers, Doc Martens and stilettos into the gaps and push them open. True, ageism is an ongoing issue in publishing, but it’s not insurmountable – and let’s face it. This is a tough business whatever your age.

Helpfully for those wishing to do the necessary work, the article also listed sources, pressure groups and awards in a side bar. Bookword blog headed that list, and the article also featured a list of ten top titles from the older women in fiction list on this blog. This blog, and the series Older Women in Fiction, is mostly concerned with characters in novels and short stories. But it also promotes women writers, and older women writers.

Older Women Writers – in demand or not?

I think money, sometimes called the grey pound, will decide this issue. Succeeding generations of older women are better educated, get better jobs, have more disposable incomes, and live longer, all factors that will support buying books. We know they are the backbone of the book-buying readers. Publishers, agents, editors will not want to go against their own commercial interests.

So there may be sexism and ageism in publishing, but there are signs that this is changing. There is less reason to discriminate against older women writers than ever, especially as the quality of their writing matches that of younger writers. 

Related posts and articles

Things are definitely opening up’: the rise of older female writers by Amelia Hill in the Guardian; 25thFebruary 2023.

The Time of our Lives by Debbie Taylor, in Mslexia, Dec/Jan/February 2022/23. You can find the Mslexia website here.

Let’s have more Older Women Writers from Bookword February 2020, in which I reported on the opinions of some older women writers.

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here. You can find more than 100 novels and collections of shorter fiction which feature older women. There are links to more than 60 books that I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

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The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio

What did I know about Cape Verde? Very little, except for an appreciation of their music. I did know that it is an archipelago off the western coast of Africa, and that it was uninhabited until the Portuguese found it convenient for their slave trade. It gained independence from Portugal in 1975. It has a population is about half a million people spread across 10 islands. The national language is Portuguese.

With so little knowledge it was with enthusiasm that I picked up this novel, first published in Portuguese in 1998, and now translated into English. It says quite a bit about the state of African women’s fiction that this is the first translation of an African woman’s novel into English from Portuguese. The publisher, Dedalus, began celebrating the centenary of women’s votes in the UK, by publishing six titles each year by women, many in translation. This one was in the first tranche. It’s an intention to be supported. 

The Madwoman of Serrano

The novel’s location could be anywhere. The village of Serrano lies in a beautiful remote valley but has no name until the midwife tells it to some surveyors and immediately dies. We are not told the name of the city to which the inhabitants eventually retreat. We are everywhere and nowhere.

The men and women of Serrano have very different roles, but their conventions are strong: there are 193 residents, including the midwife (a role that is taken over by another woman as soon as the midwife dies) and the madwoman (who also reappears every thirty-three years in a new body). 

The midwife not only helps the women of the village give birth and dispense herbal remedies and advice, but also initiates the men of the village into their marital duties. Birth rates are poor so she also sends many women to the capital to become pregnant through ‘pharmaceuticals’.

The village is beautiful, well-regulated with customs stretching back for years. But this conservatism comes at a price.

… but it was true that almost everything was considered a threat by the poor villagers, and that any sign of danger became an omen of epic proportions, sending people into hiding, peeking out only as much or as little as their fear or perversity would allow. (106)

This fear had led the villagers to chase one poor girl to her death in the river, and for generations she is known to haunt the valley. 

People would later say that there was little evidence that the Serranoans lived by the same lores that governed human beings elsewhere. The villagers never embraced imagination the way others did; they never looked around corners or sought to conquer new territories; they never explored new means of existence or ways of casting off their shackles. Such things only happened beyond Serrano’s borders. (121) 

Readers expecting a story in the European tradition will be surprised. There is a fair bit of magical-realism, and the timeline of the novel circles and returns so that each episode appears to relate to other episodes.

In essence this is a story of lovers, who must find each other after separation. But it is also about generational love. A further theme contrasts city and village life. 

Jerónimo is a young man who has completed his military service and so he has experience of the city. He returns to the village and takes up his life according to the customs of generations. But he is not happy, even when he marries Maninha, who like so many of the women of Serrano fails to become pregnant. Later he finds Fernanda, a young woman who has fallen from an aeroplane. He takes care of her, and when she produces a child, everyone assumes it is Jerónimo’s. Fernanda disappears to the city leaving her child with Jerónimo. Filipa is brought up in the village until her mutism is considered serious enough to merit a visit to the city, where she stays.

Jerónimo has lost the woman he loved and her daughter. Much of the novel concerns the lives of these three unhappy people, until, despite, knowing so little of each other, are reunited at last. 

I did not learn much about Cape Verde from this novel. Serves me right for trying a little cultural tourism.

Dina Salústio

Born in 1941, Dina Salústio is the nom de plume of a journalist, social worker and teacher. This novel was the first novel by a woman to be published in Cape Verde, and the first to be published in an English translation. She was awarded the PEN Galacia award for lifetime achievement. Her work features the issues experienced by women, which is to be welcomed as so much African post-colonial literature is dominated by men.

The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, first published in 1998. The English translation from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar was published by Dedalus in 2019. 228pp

Related posts

Some thoughts from the translator Jethro Soutar in Brittle Paper in July 2021.

A review from the blog A Year Reading the World in October 2019.

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Filed under Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – again

Mrs Palfrey was the first in the series on the blog called Older Women in Fiction, posted ten years ago in March 2013. This review has been followed by another 63 in the series. When I read and posted about Mrs Palfrey I did it under the mistaken impression that older women were rare in fiction. While they may form a small proportion of the fiction market here in the UK, I have discovered that the reader can find many books in which the older woman is the main or a significant character in a novel. 

In addition to the 64 reviews, there are another 50 recommendations from readers for inclusion in the series. Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

We are introduced to the unlikely hero in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with this description.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)

We already know that Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and thereby establishes her status among the residents. It allows Ludo an opportunity for some research as he is writing a novel about an old people’s home called We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. 

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantilises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are aging and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

On the blogs I sampled ten years ago, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed ‘eccentric’ residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth. 

Mr Osmond is a bore because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is sour and has an old-fashioned fruity, male sense of humour. He likes Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has ‘another irritating mannerism – all her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with ‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.
‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’ 
’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.
‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’
Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the now disappeared blog Dove Grey Reader Scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I still haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

After reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I went on to read and review all her novels. Loneliness is a theme in all of them. Some of her characters deal better with it than others. Mrs Palfrey seems stoic to me. 

Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel published in her lifetime. It appeared in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 

Despite many champions, Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively neglected. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life, neglect of the London literary scene, and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

I have reviewed all her novels and her short story collection on Bookword. I have been rereading them, in no order, in the last few months. My admiration for her writing keeps on growing.

Related links

You can find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series here.

You can find my original post about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont here (from March 2013)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, with an introduction by Paul Bailey, thought to be the model for Ludo.

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