At once breathtakingly sweeping and textured with alluringly fine detail, this beautifully written story set in the Aegean city of Smyrna in the lead up to WWI is a sumptuous tour de force.
Taking in the cultural complexities of the Ottoman Empire through the compelling, criss-crossing stories of Levantine, Greek, Turkish and Armenian characters, Defne Suman’s The Silence of Scheherazade is an astounding feat of historical fiction - tremendously ambitious, and dazzlingly realised through the author’s exquisitely-threaded plotting and lush storytelling.
It’s September, 1905, and one moment seals the fates of four very different families. This is the moment Scheherazade is born in cosmopolitan Smyrna to a mother numbed by opium. Though her namesake is the legendary storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, she’s mute. A silent girl who grows up to bear witness to the brutality that eventually besets her city - the death and destruction, the expulsion of communities, the impending outbreak of WWI, and the burning.
The magic of the city is dazzlingly evoked and intertwined with both the socio-political context and the very moving, very personal stories of this novel’s vast cast of characters. This is a novel to savour, to be dazzled by, to learn from, and reflect on. It invites utter immersion.
The LoveReading LitFest invited Defne to the festival to talk about The Silence of Scheherazade.
You can view the event by subscribing to the LitFest programme for as little as £6 per month - or you can pay per view. For just £2, go, see Defne in conversation with Deborah Maclaren and find out why this is such a sumptuous tour de force of a book that everyone needs to read.
Check out a preview of the event here.
At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in the ancient city of Smyrna, a devastating moment determines the fates of four families.
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.
|Publication date:||19th August 2021|
|Publisher:||Head of Zeus|
|Collections:||50+ Beautifully Written Books,|
|Primary Genre||Historical fiction|
In addition to our Lovereading expert opinion some of our Reader Review Panel were also lucky enough to read and review this title.
A rich, immersive novel about complex familial relationships in the heady and unsettling days following the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Scheherazade is a girl rescued from the burning streets of Smyrna as rival Greek and Turkish armies battle for supremacy in post-war Anatolia. A melting pot of religions and cultures, the once beautiful and vibrant Smyrna has become a febrile, destabilised centre of mounting political tension. As Scheherazade grows up with her adopted Greek family, the story of another family, prominent Levantines in an affluent community, intertwines with her own. As the secrets of Scheherazade’s past are finally revealed a complex and devastating tale of secrets and subterfuge emerges.
This is an intricate, evocative book. There is a large cast of characters and the author flits between these, whilst always returning to the silent Scheherazade, as the heart of the book. Timelines are similarly switched back and forth and although confusing in places it all adds to the sense of chaos and confusion thrown up by the end of an empire and a rapidly changing world. Whilst this is an always intriguing family saga, it can also be read as a novel of social and political history with universal themes of national identity, religion and displacement. There is a melancholy feel to the book, a great sadness at the end of this vibrant time and place but it is a fascinating insight into a lost city and its culture.
Well-written and interesting story.
I knew very little about this subject and found it very interesting. It’s set in Smyrna,(now Izmir) in Turkey between 1905 and the present and tells the story of four families: Greek, Turkish, Levantine and Armenian, all linked by the woman known as Scheherazade. The historical events are at times difficult to follow for readers who are unfamiliar with the circumstances that led to the destruction of the city, but I was impressed with the balanced way the author presented the facts.
It’s well written, and very evocative of the sights, sounds and smells of the city, full of detail about food, clothes and places. It’s a translated book, so there are times when the flow of the language isn’t quite right, but that’s a minor concern. The narrative switches from first to third person and from the point of view of the different families which is sometimes confusing, but I did want to keep reading.
The horror of what happened when Ataturk’s army came to the city is fully described and sometimes difficult to read; I felt there were many similarities with current events in the Middle East as people try to escape from war-torn countries, which made the descriptions all the more realistic.
I think the book would appeal to fans of Victoria Hislop too.
This has been beautifully translated and is the author’s English language debut. The style requires some concentration, but it is an interesting and arresting read.
This has been beautifully translated and is the author’s English language debut. The style requires some concentration, but it is an interesting and arresting read. I found the characters were all well written and the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the city of Smyrna are brought to life very effectively.
The story begins with the arrival of the spy Avinash showing how he works hard to become anonymous and fit in with the various people and nationalities around him, but notices everything and everyone. The reader is then introduced to more of the people born and raised in the city, and is shown their varying reactions to the arrival of the British.
The book moves slowly but the reader is transported to the city and the time and this is an enjoyable read.
The story of Smyrna in the early years of the twentieth century and the fate of its inhabitants and the loss of the historical city. Tragic, touching and beautifully written.
I was attracted to this book as it is set in an era and place in which I have a particular interest. The story is told from the points of view of several characters whose lives are linked in the lovely city of Smyrna. At the start of the book Smyrna is bustling, colourful and multicultural, but the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has a devastating effect on both the city and the inhabitants. It is a touching and tragic tale, tenderly told and lyrically written, and it’s easy to picture, imagine and even smell the life of the city and it’s citizens. I appreciated the skill of the author and her use of imagery to bring to life this oft neglected part of history. It is a fairly complex book with a large cast of characters but it is well worth savouring for its beauty and the sympathetic representation of Smyrna and it’s fate.
Historical story of the ancient city of Smyrna
Early twentieth century, the ancient city of Smyrna, now Izmir. This novel tells its story in a very evocative way, through four families from very different backgrounds, over a couple of decades.
I knew very little about this time in this part of the world. It’s an engrossing read, full of the sights and particularly the smells of the city. This was first published in 2016. This is the first time it’s been translated into English and is worth well a read.
A beautiful story set in a time of great turmoil throughout the world. A delicious read and we need to read more from this author.
A beautiful story set in a time of great turmoil throughout the world; war on a grand scale, a feverish peace and then civil war after failure of the Western powers to keep promises. Smyrna is shown as a city where people from different ethnicities live and work together, religion and background made no difference. Social and class divisions are deftly drawn with both side of the divide being shown with a humanity that would have been strange at the time. Joy turns into fear and pain and the shock of the sudden reversal of fortunes is made very clear. The dependence of women on the men, their helplessness and terror in the face of an invasion is heart-rending. A lone woman rebels against the norms, but does she find the freedom she dreams of? Not for the first time, young men go missing as they make the decision to fight for the freedom of their country. This will change them and their families, who wait for news of their welfare.
This is a delicious book, deceptively gentle and powerful, I look forward to reading more from this author. I wonder why we have been kept waiting so long for Defne's work to be translated into English.
Beautifully written, but you need to concentrate to keep track of everything.
A beautifully descriptive novel set during the Ottoman Empire. Rich, descriptive language with delightful scenery. This story intertwines a number of families across the decades, and is filled with love and hope, tragedy and sorrow.
I did enjoy this book, but it was a bit of a tough read. There were a vast number of characters, whom I struggled to remember, and a confusing chronology as they jumped through time and viewpoints regularly. This made it quite hard to keep track of what was going on.
A good read, but not a book that you can pick up and read a little, then return to it the next day. This is one that you need to focus on and have a bit of quiet to fully appreciate and understand all that is happening in the plot.
'A symphony of literature' -- Acik Radyo
'Defne Suman is a story-teller. She tells the story of how history inevitably determines our personalities, destinies and lives. She tells the story of how love, emotions and identities are influenced by socio-political events of a lifetime' - Cumhuriyet Newspaper
'Defne Suman has crafted a wonderfully braided story of family secrets set in the magical city of Smyrna. Told in luminous prose, The Silence of Scheherazade is a romance full of rich and memorable characters whose lives collided with a pivotal and tragic moment in history. The novel is a delight' -- Lou Ureneck, author of Smyrna, September 1922
'When Smyrna was reduced to ashes in September 1922, the world lost one of its most beautifully cosmopolitan cities. Defne Suman and Betsy Goeksel have brought it back to life in all its glory in this rich tale of love and loss, giving voice to the silenced, and music to their histories' -- Maureen Freely, Chair, PEN UK
'The Silence of Scheherazade is a wonderful, social and historical novel, with delicate touches of love, and realistic moments of a daily life that was lost forever' -- Panos Tourlis, Books and Style Magazine (Greece)
'Suman's novel examines the conflict between a pluralistic notion of selfhood and a monolithically constructed national identity. The paradigms of exile and displacement, of speaking from minority positions, are intertwined with these themes' - Soezcukler Literary Magazine
Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Prinkipo Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon, USA and now lives in Athens with her husband. The Silence of Scheherazade was first published in Turkey and Greece in 2015 and is her English language debut. Instagram: @defnesumanMore About Defne Suman