If you like reading historical fiction regarding Turkey, then Last Train to Istanbul, by Ayse Kulin, is a book I highly recommend. I, personally, could not put it down once I started reading it.
The story revolves around Selva and Sabiha, two sisters, and how their lives take dramatic turns in Ankara, Turkey. Their father is a retired government official, and a man who is greatly respected. The family is Muslim. This presents a problem within the ideals of the family unit.
Selva falls in love with a Jewish man named Rafael Alfandari. His family is also highly regarded and have been physicians of the court for many centuries.
Selva’s father disowns her, casts her out from the family for Selva and Rafael leave Istanbul for France, where they feel they will have a better life. Within that mode, events cause their lives to take unforeseen actions, actions that are dangerous and life-threatening.
Sabiha marries within the circle of aristocracy, to a man named Macit who works for the Turkish Foreign Ministry. This fact would prove fruitful in the coming years. She was a devoted sister, and her actions illuminate that.
As the story line unfolds, the reader is privy to historical facts and events leading up to Turkey’s involvement in the evacuations of Jews from Paris to Istanbul in 1943. This reader was captivated by the actions presented to me throughout the pages. I knew little about Turkey during World War II and was enlightened as to the efforts that were put forth by the “neutral” country to rescue Jews. Jews were welcomed into the arms of the country, and not just Jews of Turkish descent, but also non-Turkish Jews.
From the underground and resistance groups, to the Turkish offices of Paris and Marseilles, to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, everyone bands together in order to get Rafael and his family out of France. Selva has opportunities to leave without him, but is determined to stay with him through all costs.
We are given perspectives from both of the sisters, within the framework of a double narrative. The political situation in Turkey is demonstrated with forthrightness. Society, as a whole is well-depicted. Life in France is presented with all of its nuances and social qualities. The war and how it affects both Selva and Sabiha is realistically and believably shown.
The Last Train to Istanbul was a page-turner for me, and a novel filled with extreme historical details, which were obviously highly researched by Kulin, a well-esteemed Turkish writer. Her efforts did not go unnoticed, by me. I am a World War II history fan, and was given new insight into the dynamics that Turkey played (although “neutral”) in the assistance of rescuing Jews.
I liked the aspect of family, and how the two sisters struggle within their own environments to not only survive, but to keep in touch under adverse conditions. Selva’s concern for her family in Ankara is strongly written, as well as her thoughts regarding her father and his disowning her. Sabiha’s concern for her sister is also deeply depicted, and her struggles to bring Selva and her family back home seem quite plausable due to her husband’s influential connections.
Family dynamics are explored in depth, along with social stigmas and politics. Jewish Turkey is illuminated, and that fact gave this reader much insight into the country prewar and events leading up to, and during, the horrific time of war.
The author’s use of the strength of love and survival under the duress and adversity of war is a definite foundation of the story line. I totally became involved within the pages of Last Train to Istanbul. Brava to Ayse Kulin, and to the translator, John W. Baker.