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Maureen Freely’s new novel, Sailing Through Byzantium, is a tense thriller evoking childhood in Istanbul in the early 1960s. Mimi is eight years old when her progressive, bohemian parents move to Istanbul to escape the oppressive atmosphere of McCarthy-era America. For Mimi it means leaving behind a safe and familiar world where grandmothers bake cakes and little girls eat Oreos and pledge allegiance to their flag.
Transplanted into an alien and confusing city, she struggles to make sense of new alliances and old allegiances, witness to an expatriate society whose lies and betrayals hover round the child like partygoers round the piano.
The piano in question is played by Baby Mallinson, a gay black American whose rambunctious improvisations deliver a bitter-sweet soundtrack to the book. Mimi’s mother, Grace, has given up singing on her husband’s insistence, but every now and then she can be persuaded to sing for her children and for Baby. ‘Stormy Weather’ is Mimi’s song.
It is Grace who first encourages Mimi to use her eyes and ears as the family plan a Mediterranean cruise aboard a Soviet ship, and Grace who protects her, with wavering constancy, from her increasingly baffled and irritated father, a physicist of upright morals and little humour.
An old family friend, Mr Guttman, has given Mimi a sketchbook as a parting present. As Mimi learns to draw, her sketchbook becomes a record of the people and situations she encounters, beginning with a sequence of mishaps with a fire extinguisher when she is waitressing for the Admiral and his wife. Mimi’s loss of innocence is expressed in the dawning realisation that the grown-ups who claim to admire her talent are, for the most part, insincere.
One by one, her parents’ friends are penetrated by Mimi’s precocious gaze. Pinned to the pages of the sketchbook, their motives and relationships are woven into a compelling narrative composed of half-truths and suppositions. Before long she is using lemon juice as invisible ink to scrawl the secret comments and reports that accompany her drawings. There’s the glamorous Nella, with her slim, brown legs and officious husband, Rex; the starchy admiral and his appealing Quaker wife, who comes to Mimi’s rescue when she’s sent off to school again without a decent lunch; Mimi’s older friend, Dora, who peddles unreliable gossip collected by her mother, a freelance journalist; and of course the enigmatic party of Turks, Russians and Americans who assemble on board the Soviet ship, the Felix Dzhershinsky, en route for Egypt.
Freely has an ear for dialogue, and her sly humour stalks the pages of this novel. When Baby questions why the girls are named after consumptive opera heroines, Mimi’s mother crisply reminds him that “‘Mimi and Violetta didn’t die, because they were actresses. After the curtains went down, they left the stage, stepped out of the tragedy that had produced such beauty, and went on to fabulous feasts, to be fêted by suitors and sycophants. They escaped from their grasp to sail off to sing other operas, in the other great cities of the world.’
‘Now that’s what I call fancy footwork,’ Baby said.”
Mimi’s fears, and her efforts to contain them, weave themselves into a tautly paced plot that culminates in the Cuban missile crisis, marked by her parents with an End of the World Party as Kennedy’s deadline runs out. In a drily restrained allusion to an offstage drama, never articulated, Mimi’s younger sister is being regularly abused by a workman on her way to school; but nobody notices, Mimi least of all, as they all focus their attention on their love lives, their lies and the climax of the Cold War.
Freely’s feeling for the period is spot-on: there is not a false note. Wild parties on the Bosphorus are punctuated by the sinister tremors of huge Soviet ships passing through the straits, black shadows which slowly block the lights from the Asian shore. Mimi learns and understands too much, and yet too little: the reader is kept guessing, but is never let down.
Finely calibrated, compassionate and compellingly observed, Sailing Through Byzantium is a triumph.
The writer and historian Jason Goodwin’s fifth Yashim adventure, ‘The Baklava Club’, will be published in 2014
When David Wheeler set out to satisfy his craving to explore Turkish gardens, he was guided by a diverse cast of committed Istanbul citizens. What he discovered were myriad horticultural havens, from Byzantine market gardens to Ottoman cemeteries – many of them under imminent threat.
SPECIAL OFFER: order five beautiful garden-themed issues, including this one, for only £80. List price £122
In his 40-year career, Sinan (1489–1588) transformed the Istanbul skyline. Here we explore three of the chief imperial architect’s masterpieces from the golden age of Süleyman the Magnificent. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg
Justinian’s soaring edifice inspires the same awe today as it did in visitors a millennium ago who wondered if this were Heaven or Earth. Setting out on a tour of the city’s best-preserved Byzantine churches, Robert Ousterhout still senses an air of the miraculous in Ayasofya
The long-awaited Naval Museum has many wonders to reveal, but nothing to compare with the fabulously ornate imperial barges
From a trusty staple to the stuff of feasts, beans are at the very heart of Turkish cuisine. How did we ever live without them?
In a vivid, impressionistic portrait of the Byzantine city, Robert Ousterhout uncovers the history of Byzantium in ten objects, explores the soaring edifice of Ayasofya and picks four of the city’s most inspiring smaller churches.
Take in the Topkapı, where the sultans held sway in secluded grandeur. Saunter round Sultanahmet and the Hippodrome: make the most of the mosques, monuments and museums. Get the buzz of the bazaar: where to snap up covetable collectables and cheerful bargains
Deep in the industrial outskirts of Istanbul, Griselda Warr enters an Aladdin’s cave of Anatolian treasures. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg
AyşeDeniz Gökçin’s musical creations combine the rock-star appeal of Franz Liszt and the psychedelic/progressive brilliance of the band Pink Floyd. Tony Barrell found this prodigiously talented young pianist a force to be reckoned with. Photograph by Charles Hopkinson
John Carswell solves the mystery of the ‘lemon squeezer’ that wasn’t
In a decade of monitoring Turkey’s burgeoning wine industry, Kevin Gould has never been more impressed. He and the Cornucopia tasting team enthusiastically sampled this year’s top bottles and nominated their favourites
It is a joy to explore. New universities, a new museum, and a growing band of new aficionados who have invested modest means in old houses, have created a wonderful sense of optimism. But the ancient waterfront is in the eye of the storm, with many quarters due to be bulldozed and the threat of a hideous new marina. Enjoy it while you can
Hidden away in one of Istanbul’s least prepossessing neighbourhoods is a walled garden surrounding a dream of a kiosk – a favourite of many sultans.
Give yourself over to the grit and bustle of Eminönü’s waterside markets, then ascend to Sinan’s sublime hilltop mosques – the awesome Süleymaniye and the haunting Şehzade. In their shadow is the exuberantly tiles Rüstem Pasha Mosque. Cornucopia devotes 24 pages to this vibrant area, with features on Eminönü and the Suleymaniye district with photographs by Jürgen Frank, and a guide to the mosques beautifully depicted by Fritz von der Schulenburg
Within the deepest reaches of the palace lies the very seat of the sultans’ power
The Grand Bazaar: From Iznik to Armani, objets d’art to handloomed carpets: the choice is yours
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