The Oracle of Stamboul

In this richly-flavored, fabulistic first novel, the vividly-imaginedEleanora Cohen—born in Romania in 1877—stows away along with her rug-traderfather and heads (in hiding, sustained by a crate of caviar that was destinedfor the Sultan) from the Romanian city of Constanta to 19th-century “Stamboul.” There shediscovers, alongside the intricate loveliness of Ottoman Istanbul, her ownoracular powers and prodigious intelligence. This is a great thing for thebookish Eleanora, who has fled a domineering stepmother and a forbiddingvillage. She blooms as the wealthy Moncef Bey, a friend of her father’s,exposes her to luxuries (and books) she had never imagined. But all is not wellin Istanbul: when her father dies unexpectedly in a boat crash, Eleanora isleft in Bey’s household, nearly alone in the world. Heartbroken, she retreats into silence she will not beable to keep for long. Indeed, mysterious plots and counterplots swirl aroundEleanora, and it is her destiny, it seems, to unravel them. Istanbul is rifewith internal conflicts, and not even members of her new household are as theyseem. Her gift for unusual insight is soon called upon, not only to interprether new neighbors but also to navigate world events for no less than the Sultanhimself. 

Oddly,this book’s primary charm—its fairy tale quality—is what’s least well-developedin the end. There’s a sense that the magic that surrounds both Eleanora’smysterious powers and Istanbul at large don’t quite buttress each other—theynever translate into the powerful story they have been hinting at. Still, thetapestry Lukas has woven offers an engrossing read for many of its nearly 300pages, if only because, indeed, 19th-century Istanbul seems as likely a place asany for real magic to thrive.

Lukasis at his best reimagining Istanbul as the global center it has always been: inthis novel he lushly paints the late-nineteenth-century moment, complete withtrading Jews, well-meaning but possibly corrupt WASP missionaries, andfascinating but internally competitive Muslim intellectuals—all of whom try touse their perches in this ancient city to influence the wider world. Meanwhile,Lukas’s landscape itself is just plain fun to absorb. Here’s the noveloverlooking Galata Bridge and capturing Istanbul’s heat: 

Summer could be found in thesticky smell of cherry sherbet, in roast squab, and in rotting loquats. Like afreshly tanned hide pulled tighter and tighter, each day was perceptibly longerthan the previous… the straights were busy with migratory birds. Wave afterwave of hawk, stork, swallow and cormorant flocked up the Bosporus on their wayto old breeding grounds in Europe…

Thefabulous Eleanora, who is charming but a bit far-fetched, turns out to besomething of a red herring. What’s delicious (and indeed Turkishly delightful)about this book is its sumptuous setting. It makes those of us who have been toIstanbul want to go back, and those who haven’t wish once again to go.