A woman’s search for faith, love and identity in present-day Istanbul… We present an exclusive glimpse into Turkish author Elif Shafak’s latest novel
Peri glanced down. She was wearing a purple silk dress with a beaded, embroidered chiffon jacket, which she had bought from a boutique in a shining new shopping mall nestled within a larger shopping mall — as if the one had just given birth to the other. The ensemble was too expensive. When she objected to the price the clerk had said nothing, a tiny smile forming in the corner of his mouth. “If you can’t afford it, lady, what are you doing here?” the smile said. It had vexed Peri, the condescension. “I’ll take it,” she had heard herself say. Now she felt the tightness of the fabric against her skin, saw the wrongness of the colour. The purple that had appeared to be bold and confident under the store’s fluorescent tubes looked garish and pretentious in daylight.
Useless thoughts these were since she had no time to go home and change. They were already running late for a dinner at the seaside mansion of a businessman who had made a colossal fortune in the last few years — not that there was anything unusual about it. Istanbul abounded with the old poor and the nouveau riche and with those who yearned to pole-vault from the former to the latter category in one quick leap.
Peri disliked these dinner parties that went on late into the night and often left her with a migraine the next day. She would rather stay home and, in the witching hours, be immersed in a novel — reading being her way to connect with the universe. But solitude was a rare privilege in Istanbul. There was always some important event to attend or an urgent social responsibility to fulfil as if the culture, like a child scared of loneliness, made sure everyone was at all times in the company of others. So much laughter and food. Politics and cigars. Shoes and dresses, but above all, designer handbags! Women paraded their handbags like trophies won in faraway battles. Who knew which ones were original, which ones fake. Istanbul’s middle-to-upper-class ladies, not wanting to be seen purchasing counterfeit goods, instead of visiting dubious stores in and around the Grand Bazaar, invited store owners to their houses. Vans full of Chanels, Louis Vuittons and Bottegas, their windows blackened, their license plates obscured by mud (though the rest of the vehicles were glowing clean), zipped back and forth among affluent quarters, and were admitted into private garages of villas through the back gates as in a film noir spy movie. Payments were made in cash, no receipts issued, no further questions asked. At the earliest social gathering, the same ladies would furtively inspect one another’s handbags not only to identify the brand, but also to judge their authenticity — or the quality of the replica. It was a lot of effort. Optical effort.
Women stared. They scanned, scrutinised and searched, hunting for the flaws in other women, both manifest and camouflaged. Overdue manicures, newly gained pounds, sagging bellies, Botoxed lips, varicose veins, cellulite still visible after liposuction, hair roots in need of dyeing, a pimple or a wrinkle hidden under layers of powder…. There was nothing that this pervasive gaze could not discern and detect. However carefree they may have been before they arrived at the party, too many female guests became, by and by, both the victim and the perpetrator of this gaze. The more Peri thought about the evening ahead the more she dreaded it.