The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman, trans. by Elizabeth Göksel

The Silence of Scheherazade is a story narrated by a woman found passed out, burnt, covered in ashes, in the garden of a Turkish colonel in Smyrna. She is beautiful and silent. She brings with her unspoken stories of her past, of her people’s past, of her city’s past. Her saviours call her Scheherazade.

At Scheherazade’s birth, Smyrna, an ancient cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire, filled with people of different heritages, Greek, Levantine, Turkish, Armenian, French, British, American and Indian, is about to undergo huge change as the power of the Ottoman Empire wanes and European forces fight over the spoils. Scheherazade’s story follows the shifts in power, dipping in and out of different families and peoples, exploring her own heritage and that of her city.

Unlocking her personal history gives voice to the silent masses who died in the war for supremacy over Smyrna. Defne Suman quotes J. M. Coetzee at the beginning of the novel: ‘Many stories can be told of Friday’s tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday, who is mute. The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday.’ The Silence of Scheherazade is her way of giving Friday a voice.

The story and the writing are rich and rewarding. There are passages, particularly towards the end during the desperate battles in Smyrna, that are exquisitely beautiful. There is a lot of history and heartache to absorb. It brings that part of the world to life.

Despite my admiration for the novel, The Silence of Scheherazade didn’t fully win me over. It felt more like an account built to teach me history rather than a story in which I was fully immersed, but this is certainly only my experience and I have no doubt that this will be a much read and loved novel that has huge amounts to offer a wide readership. You’ll know if this sounds like your kind of novel.

I’m not sure what I’m reviewing next. I’m reading a biography of Gertrude Bell, but I may not review that here. You’ll have to wait and see!