The setting is a stately residence in Istanbul built by Russian noble emigre Pavel Antipov for his wife Agripina at the end of the Tsarist reign, now sadly dilapidated, flea-infested, and home to ten families. Shafak uses the narrative structure of A Thousand and One Nights to construct a story-within-a-story narrative. Inhabitants include Ethel, a lapsed Jew in search of true love and the sad and beautiful Blue Mistress whose personal secret provides the novel with an unforgettable denouement. Add to this a strange, intensifying stench whose cause is revealed at the end of the book, we have a metaphoric conduit for the cultural and spiritual decay in the heart of Istanbul.
Elif Shafak, born 1971 in Strasbourg, spent her teenage years in Spain, before returning to Turkey, is an outstanding name amongst young Turkish authors. She has written five novels, and won the Mevlana Prize for the best work in mystical and transcendental literature.