Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Amie O’Brien’s THE MERCHANT’S PEARL – Love in a Harem in the Late 19th Century Ottoman Empire

A great debut novel, this is a well-told tale that will sweep you away to an exotic locale drawing you into harem life. You will not forget the well-developed characters.

Set in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century (beginning in Istanbul in 1875), this is the story of Sarai, the daughter of missionaries. She was very close to her father who called her his “Pearl”. When she is eleven, her parents were killed and she was sold into slavery. Renamed “Leila”, she is made a “concubine-in-waiting” for Sultan Aziz. But as an older teen, she is claimed by his son, Prince Emre and becomes his concubine.

The story begins with a rather vague prologue, but then immerses us in the life of a haren. Told from the first person (we are only ever in Leila’s head), we see the quandary Leila faces as she is thrust into a world where she goes nowhere unguarded or uncloaked (save for her eyes). Mindful of her heritage, she fights the idea of being “owned”, even rejecting Prince Emre’s gifts.

Meanwhile, giving in to Leila’s preferences, Emre makes no sexual demands upon her. (He has two wives and two other concubines for that.) With Leila, he just talks about his life and his family’s struggles. They become friends, slowly learning to trust each other and confide their secrets. Leila shares her love of Jane Austen’s novels with Emre, who—like Leila—feels trapped by his life and so they become kindred spirits.

The romance between Leila and Emre is a slow burn (466 pages) as friendship develops into love. For being twenty, Emre is a most mature and unusual man. Leila is a Christian who, at one point, tells Emre she is planning on becoming a Muslim. But then she tells him she cannot read from the Quran, as it would betray her father’s faith. And her thoughts suggest she is a believer in God (not Allah).

History is woven in through what Emre shares with Leila about what is happening in his father’s kingdom, reflecting considerable research into the culture and the history of the time. Only two things distracted: the dialog and phrasing is often modern (the use of “Hey” as a greeting, for example); and the end feels like the middle in that there is no clear happy ever after or any clear ending. It feels like “to be continued” should be added. So, one presumes another installment will be forthcoming.

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