Book Review: Last Train To Istanbul

I recently purchased a shiny new Samsung Galaxy 4 tablet. It's fun for many reasons, but one of the main ones is the Amazon Kindle application that came with it, which effectively turns the tablet into an e-reader. That alone is good, but what's even better is that the Kindle application includes monthly "Samsung Kindle Deals," which are a selection of free books Amazon offers to Samsung tablet users, a different selection each month.

Predictably, the free books don't seem to have a lot of appeal to me, but then again, I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Last month, I chose a book called Last Train to Istanbul by Turkish author Ayse Kulin.

I say, "Turkish author Ayse Kulin" because every online review and reference to the book I have ever seen puts it that way. Ayse Kulin isn't an author. She's a Turkish author. Rest assured this raised a few red flags for me as I downloaded the book, because I tend to be skeptical of niche authors. Either one is a good writer, or one is not. Saying, "good Turkish writer," translates in Ryan-parlance to "she's a good writer... for a Turk."

I also hesitated over the subject matter: the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. I am admittedly a bit of a World War II buff (just a little bit), but stories about the Holocaust are so pervasive that their over-supply has stunted their emotional power. There are simply too many of them for any one such story to resonate with the same kind of power that The Diary of Anne Frank once did.

Finally, I was reticent to read the book because the synopsis made it sound like another in a long line of ethnically themed young-woman-loves-despite-cultural-pressures novels. I have two problems with these: (1) they're maybe the only kind of story more pervasive than Holocaust stories, and (2) they seem to be the very reason that phrases like "Turkish author" and "Bengali author" exist in the first place.

As you can see, even before I had opened the book, I was skeptical. It was unlikely that I would end up enjoying this book. As expected, I did dislike it.

Unexpectedly, however, I disliked it for entirely different reasons than I anticipated. To my delight, this was not merely a Turkish novel; it was not merely a Holocaust novel; it was not merely an ethnic romance novel. It contained partial elements of all of these, but thankfully steered clear of all the stereotypes. On that level, the novel delivered.

The plot was surprisingly interesting. I didn't know a lot about Turkey's role in World War II, so it was interesting to read about some of the historical events that tend not to make the American history books. The plot synopses available online tend not to adequately describe what the book is actually about. What it's really about is a Turkish family trying to bring their estranged expatriate daughter back to Turkey before the German occupation kills them all. That's a genuinely good, and remarkably refreshing plot.

Unfortunately, the book is written on a fifth-grade reading level. The language is simple to the point of distraction, which is a fault I would typically try to overlook in a novel that has had to undergo translation into English. But the poorly constructed narrative of the story leads me to believe that the fault is not in the translation, but in the original. New characters are introduced moments before they become relevant to the plot. Back-stories of main characters are given not when we meet the character, nor even as we come to absorb the character, but simply a couple of paragraphs before their back-stories come into play in main plot. To do this once over the course of the novel is excusable, but to do it repeatedly is little more than poor writing.

The effect of this is to present a story in a rather odd way. The story one feels like one is reading at the beginning of the book is completely different from the story one feels like one is reading at the end, and not in a good way.

All said, I give Ayse Kulin full marks for coming up with a fascinating story that really could have been literary. I hope that, over time, she hones her writing skills. For me, Last Train to Istanbul simply fell flat.

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