Friday, February 11, 2011

The Flea Palace

Every city has its apartment complexes. And every apartment complex has its stories. Stories of love, hate, worries, compassion, stress, depression, exhiliaration and a gamut of other emotions. And it has its secrets. Secrets that the apartment dwellers harbor from each other and a lot of times from themselves as well.

The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak is a story of one such apartment complex with a known problem which hides so many interesting issues in it. Under the expert hands of Elif Shafak, the angst and psychosis of each of the ten flats are revealed in it we see a slice of life in Turkey. Not from the beautiful postcards that the governemnt would like you to see and believe but from the true eyes of people who live the daily life. And that's what makes this book so interetsting. As you read the story of the 10 apartments in Bonbon Palace plagued by the smell of a garbage dump outside the building, you realise that each one of these could be someone you know from your apartment complex as well.

Could the person in Flat 203 in your apartment complex be actually like the divorced academician in Flat no. 7 of Bonbon Palace who loves to indulge in philosophy and talk big things while unable to deal with the fact that his wife left him but is having an affair with someone in the apartment complex as well as another friend? Could he?

Elif Shafak offers us a varied mix of emotions and issues through the residents of Bonbon Palace. She introduces us to a woman who has been forced to become independent because she perceives her husband to be a wimp, who is pregnant with a second child but is obsessed with protecting the pregnancy and her first child through all sorts of superstitions because she lost her first three pregnancies. The beauty is how Elif Shafak also shows us her son's emotions and how because of the overbearing nature of the mother, he too is going the same route as the father.

There is a student with his dog in one of the flats who is obssesed with death, who has pasted various forms of posters, writings, pages and slips on the ceiling of his flat. Who has no direction in life and would rather be lost in a haze of smoke alone with his dog than be found mingling with people and interacting with them. Twin hairdressers who were seperated at birth and lived in different countries but now together, who have nothing in common but stick together. Their touching story of guilt and redemption. A wife who has lost her identity and is only known by her husband's name, who is an alien in a foreign land and is unable to adjust herself to this new life. A woman who is a mistress to a fat olive merchant but happy in that existence with no expectations from life, who is clear with the academician that they can never be friends or lovers but only sex partners. Her descent into misery and self infliction is especically interesting and left unanswered. A lady with a hygiene OCD whose child gets lice and it turns her world upside down. A woman whose house is forever closed and who does not invite anyone inside. A family living in a fortress of a house with some sort of pet always kept outside. Another family with working parents leaving their three kids with their grandfather who loves to tell scary stories to them.

Bonbon Palace is a smasgosbord of emotions and glimpses into the daily lives of everyday people. The permeating garbage smell is the common link which unites them and seperates them at the same time. It is a treatise of social issues and makes you think as you read through it.

The book does get verbose in some parts as Elif Shafak seems to get carried away with her writing and goes off on a tangent. While there are some brilliant insights into some aspects, there are also some stories that sound redundent in the long run. Some flat residents that would best have been left untold because they have nothing to offer. She does try to link each of the flat residents and their stories with the others but it comes out as forced in some parts and nicely obvious in others. And therein lies the issue of the author. If you read this as her first book, you may miss out on reading her most brilliant book - Forty Rules of Love. But if that's the first one you have read, you will be like me - wanting to read her other books to rediscover the magic of Forty Rules of Love.

This is not a breezy read book. It takes time and sometimes effort to run through the story hoping to find some connection somewhere. Don't read this book expecting a serial fashion of one chapter leading to another with a logical ending. Rather read it as a documentary of daily life with parallel chapters and stories that hope to come together at the end with a logical ending. Do they? Not completely because the twist in the tale is at the very end and believe me it is a wonderful twise that will make you question everything that you read.

I would rate this at 3/5.


  1. yazarımızın kıymetini biliyoruz. umarım yurtdışındada hakkettiği değeri görür ve türkiyeye geri döner. orhan pamuk gibi olmasın sonumuz...

  2. Hey Kaushal - Elif read your book review with a great interest... Keep up good work...

  3. Seeing your post,I can say that I'm quite lucky to have read Elif Shafak's The Forty Rules of Love as first.I loved her writing and I'm curious to have the pleasure of discovering this book as well.I hope I can untangle the connection between the stories as you pointed out to be not so easy to do so.