Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

I picked up this book because I am fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and I was curious to see what was being written about it, especially in light of contemporary American views of the Middle East. My mom read the book before I did, and she enjoyed it, but felt that it moved a bit slowly and that the author used a lot of very specific vocabulary that slowed down what she was reading.
I'm glad that she read it first, because she had a very different perspective than I did. Reading The Janissary Tree I did not feel it moved any slower than any other book because of its vocabulary or subject. However, I realize in retrospect, that the vocabulary and themes specific to nineteenth-century Istanbul are not as foreign to me as they would be to my mom.
The mystery revolves around the disappearance and death of five members of the New Guard, the soldiers defending the Ottoman sultan. Yashim, a eunuch, is called in to investigate the disappearance of the soldiers. Goodwin's choice of a eunuch as the main character was a masterful stroke. On the one hand, he could use his historical knowledge to explain the life of an Ottoman eunuch - why a man would have been castrated, and what kind of life he would have expected to lead in Istanbul. However, and more importantly for the story, a eunuch has a greater freedom of movement than almost any other actor in the Ottoman Empire. Unlike any other man, he would have had access to the private lives of women. But, as a man he also existed in the world of men.
Goodwin's presentation of 1830s Istanbul clearly reflects the author's extensive historical knowledge of that world. His incorporation of European ambassadors watching the world of the sultan and seeing how and when he might fail reflects the political reality of the era and adds some humorous and interesting characters to the story. The discussion of Westernizing the empire to continue to remain a strong power in light of an ascendant France and Russia and the incorporation of a proposed edict that would change society mirrors the Tanzimat reforms that came in the late-1830s.
Looking at other reviews of the book, I have found that readers do not find the plot "believable." In fact, I think they want a more Americanized, exoticized, view of the Ottoman Empire instead of the more historically accurate portrayal that Goodwin gives. In fact, I find Goodwin's interpretation to be a better and more realistic look at the Ottoman Empire than much of what is written about this little-known world. All in all, it is a well-crafted mystery and a historically accurate story.
It is slow at points, focusing on the detailed and convoluted history of the Ottoman Empire. But, I find that rather than detract from the story, in this case it helps give a more complete and honest picture of the world of Yashim the detective. I look forward to reading The Snake Stone, the second book in the Yashim series.

1 comment:

Shannon said...

It looks really interesting and I'm excited to read my birthday present. Thanks, Jehnie!