Book review: The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas

When a mysterious eight-year-old Jewish girl sails inauspiciously into Stamboul in 1877, even the mighty Sultan behind the fortress walls of Topkapi Palace is set to feel the ripple effects of her magic.

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 5th August 2011, 7:00 am

Michael David Lukas’ striking debut novel, set in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, is an alluring blend of mysticism and adventure, a journey into the atmospheric and ancient city of what we now call Istanbul.

At the point where East meets West, where people hawk and haggle, bustle, bargain and pray, Lukas brings us the unusual story of a bewitching and gifted child whose triumphs and tragedies are guaranteed to fire imaginations and break hearts.

When Eleanora Cohen is born not far from the Romanian city of Constanta on the shores of the Black Sea, the omens are not promising.

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Her mother dies in childbirth while their village is being attacked by Tsar Alexander II’s Royal Cavalry as they make their way to Pleven to do battle with the troops of General Osman Pasha.

Within minutes of Eleanora’s arrival, Constanta is hit by a four-day downpour, the like of which it has never seen before, and a flock of distinctive hoopoe birds takes permanent roost in the trees outside her home.

Despite her carpet dealer father’s re-marriage to her mother’s sister Ruxandra, a sour spinster ‘wrung out by life,’ Eleanora grows into a stunning child with a demure beauty, a precise logic, an intense presence and an inner radiance that draws people to her like a magnet.

By the age of eight, her life revolves around books and reading but when her beloved father announces that he will be spending a month on business in Stamboul, a desperate Eleanora stows away on his ship.

Shortly into their visit, a terrible tragedy leaves Eleanora marooned in the city of legends where spies, boarded-up harems and sudden death are as much a part of life as delicious spices, Paris fashions and rosewater.

Only Eleanora’s extraordinary courage and character will see her through the turmoil and lead her to the opulent court of Sultan Abdulhamid, head of an empire that was once feared and respected but is now equal only to a middling nation of fishermen and drunks.

Could this bed of politics and intrigue be Eleanora’s salvation?

A historical novel of literary quality and exotic surprises, The Oracle of Stamboul will resonate long after the last page is turned...

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)