The author was on Radio 4’s Start the Week when the book came out (some time ago). It sounded good and I was in the vicinity of a Foyle’s that happened to have it in stock.
It was being sold as the story of three Muslim women of different backgrounds studying at Oxford – a devout Muslim, a secular Muslim and one who had rejected religion.
It’s actually almost entirely about Peri, a woman from a lower middle class family in Istanbul. Her father is secular and her mother is religious. Peri falls somewhere in between but much closer to her father’s position. When she leaves for Oxford in 2000 secularism is still the default position in Turkey. The story is split between Istanbul in 2016 and Peri’s childhood and time at Oxford (2000-2002). We know that Peri didn’t finish her degree but came back to Turkey and got married, but not why.
The first person she meets in Oxford is Shirin, from the Iranian diaspora who has lived all her life in the West. Through Shirin she becomes fascinated by a charismatic and controversial professor who teaches a seminar on “God”. There is also Mona, a devout woman who is also a fierce feminist.
When the three decide to share a house together it does not go well, but there are external elements trying to stir up trouble, as well as the women’s clashing personalities.
There’s a lot going on here on top of the study of a somewhat typical for her time Turkish woman’s experience. The book is largely also about how Turkey has become more religious over the last 20 years. Anyone who has been in academia will recognise the professor who abuses his power and manipulates people, and the inevitable backlash (with some major overreaction thrown in).
I enjoyed the first half but kept finding that half an hour was quite enough to read at a time (that is usually only the case with me with non-fiction or something very difficult that I need to process). It does get a lot more gripping as Peri grows up and moves to Oxford, though.
This is another one like The Essex Serpent – I liked it very much, but I didn’t love it. I did like it more than The Essex Serpent – it was more engaging and it had the added bonus of broadening my horizons to look at a different culture, as well as something near to my own culture through outside eyes. I definitely recommend it.