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Histories of two families collide in 'Istanbul'

The Bastard of Istanbul, By Elif Shafak, Viking, 357 pp., $24.95

Asya Kazanci, the title character in "The Bastard of Istanbul," is 19, headstrong, and sick of her family. Too bad she lives with them: her mother Zeliha, the sexy, brassy owner of a tattoo parlor; her aunt Banu, a psychic who mixes belief in folk magic with Islamic piety; her aunt Cevriye, a humorless teacher of Turkish history who's a walking fountain of nationalist propaganda; her grandmother, Gülsüm , who's perpetually furious at Zeliha's failure to be anything approaching a good Muslim; her great-grandmother, Petite-Ma , who's succumbing to Alzheimer's; and lastly her aunt Feride, who's . . . well, just plain nuts.

With the bohemian regulars at a local bar and the music of Johnny Cash , Asya takes refuge from her rage at being illegitimate and her frustrations with her family.

Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian lives in Arizona and San Francisco. She's 21, headstrong, and sick of her family. Her over protective mother Rose is a native Kentuckian who lives in Tucson. Her good-natured father Barsam Tchakhmakhchian is an Armenian-American who lives in San Francisco. If Rose had her way, Armanoush (whom she calls Amy) would never be out of her sight. If Barsam's mother and sisters had their heart's desire, Armanoush would never have anything to do with her odan (that's Armenian for outsider) mother again. In the meantime, the best they can do is fight over her, smother her with attention, and (on the Armenian side of the family) push her to find a man.

Armanoush spends time online in an Armenian-American chatroom and reads novels to find refuge from her identity conflicts and her frustrations with her family.

Asya and Armanoush have something else in common besides difficult families and angst: a family member. Around the time Asya was born, her uncle Mustafa went to Arizona for college, where he met Rose shortly after her divorce from Armanoush's father. And they got married -- Rose knowing full well one of the best ways to horrify her Armenian ex-in-laws would be to get involved with a Turk.

And when Armanoush has had enough -- of her mother, of her father's family, and of not knowing who she is -- she decides she needs to get away. And she needs to know what it means to be Armenian. And to do that she needs to go to Istanbul, where her family lived before the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks. So she writes to the Kazanci family, introduces herself as Mustafa's stepdaughter, and says she's flying to Istanbul and could she stay with them?

Armanoush's visit is the tip of an emotional domino: and by the time all the pieces have fallen, one after the other, we've learned how the Kazanci and Tchakhmakhchian families are connected by the 1915 genocide and the identity of Asya's father.

I don't have enough space to describe everything I loved about this book. The scenes in the Kazanci and Tchakhmakhchian households -- the family dynamics, the voices, the distinctive cultural atmospheres -- are nothing short of wonderful. "Bastard" is a great novel for female characters -- even the ones who make the briefest appearances are rounded and whole. Reading the passages about them leaves you with the sense of having eavesdropped on real people in their homes. But this book is also a meditation on the importance and the burden of the past -- how to live with it and when to walk away from it. Above all, "Bastard" is a novel about Istanbul, about loving a place until its rhythms , smells , and colors are under your skin.

"The Bastard of Istanbul" is a fun, funny -- and finally moving -- book.