Having spent my life as a student and teacher, I must confess that I went to two book clubs last week without having read the book for one, a deliberate choice, and not having finished for the second one. I chose not to read Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros because I started the book and did not like it. Obviously, if I had been reading for a class whether as a student or a teacher, I would have read the book anyway. Now, however, I give myself permission to read or not to read as I see fit. I have too many books on my list to waste time on books I do not like; I can at some point revisit the books I’ve rejected.
I was also reading Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin for a book club. I wanted very much to complete the story before the book club met, but I simply ran out of time. I was reading on my Kindle and got to 80% of the book, and an exciting part, I may add. I did finish the book after the meeting!
Ayse Kulin is a much- loved author born in Istanbul, Turkey. She has written a number of books, selling more than ten million copies world-wide. Last Train to Istanbul won the European Council Jewish Community Best Novel Award. It has been translated into twenty-three languages.
Last Train to Istanbul centers on the story of two sisters: Sabiha, the elder, and Selva, the younger. The story opens with Selva, a Muslim, falling in love with Rafael Alfandari, a Jewish man born and raised in Turkey. Sabiha has often pushed Selva into meetings with Rafael so she could pursue her own interests and not be burdened by her younger, beautiful sister. As a result, Sabiha blames herself when Selva and Rafael fall in love.
Both girls have been well-educated. Selva particularly loves debating with her father and feels on equal footing with him. When she argues that she must marry Rafael because the two cannot live apart, her father is angry and will not accept her argument. Rafael’s parents are equally appalled by the thought of their son marrying a Muslim.
Selva and Rafael do marry and flee to Paris where they think they can live happily even though they will be separated from their families. All may have gone well, but Hitler invaded France, so Selva and Rafael quickly move to Marseilles, hoping they will remain safe there.
Tarik, a Turkish government official, has worked with Macit, Sabiha’s husband in Ankara, but he has been transferred to an office in Paris. He will become an integral part of the story.
The tension increases as the Germans are also in Marseilles and Jews are being arrested. Meanwhile in Turkey, Sabiha suffers from depression, feeling she has signed her sister’s death warrant. She becomes distant from her husband and young daughter. She feels responsible for the estrangement between her parents and her sister. Macit, Sabiha’s husband, is a high-level minister in the Turkish government, working long hours. His absence also contributes to Sabiha’s depression.
Much of the story takes place in Marseilles where Selva works with the Turkish Embassy to get passports for Turkish Jews and others living in France to help them escape to Istanbul and therefore escape from the Nazis.
The story becomes tense when the passports are all forged and Turkish names assigned to those trying to escape. The group arranges for a train and in a daring move decides to take the train right through Berlin and then down to Istanbul.
The journey will not be easy, not in terms of comfort or security. The train must go through many checkpoints, any of which could mean disaster. The group consists of young adults, elderly people, and children. Kulin does a masterful job of conveying the dangers the people face as they make their way to Istanbul.
Readers learn of the individuals and become invested in their safety. The tension increases as the train makes its way into Berlin.
Kulin has created a riveting story with characters the readers come to know. I found myself at times holding my breath because of the tension. We read many stories about WWII. This one takes readers on a slightly different journey, starting in Ankara, moving to Paris and Marseilles, and then to Istanbul in pursuit of freedom and safety. Last Train to Istanbul is well worth reading.