stone woman
Book Review, Historical

Stone woman by Tariq Ali

This is the third book of the Islamic Quintet, the series which I am thoroughly enjoying right now and this book carries on the tradition.

This time, the novel is based in Ottoman Turkey at the end of the last century, a period in which the empire would be called the ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ and for good reason, as the novel brings out…

One difference of this book from the others that I have read from the Quintet (‘Book of Saladin’ and ‘A Sultan in Palermo’) is that unlike these two, the events in this book does not take place from inside the royal perimeters. The king and the bureaucracy are mentioned only in the third person and the only real contact we have of the empire’s centre is when there is talk of insurrection at the end of the book…another difference is that it does not cover any specific historical event. The decay of the empire serves as a background only

The book is based on an Ottoman family which is high on social status mainly because of wealth and influence. The family once had extensive contact with the King but till one of the ancestors fell out favour and was driven into exile.

The story takes place extensively in the family house on the outskirts of Istanbul. There are two narrators in the story – one of the daughter of the family who had rebelled in order to get married to a Greek teacher. The second one are the confessions made to the ‘Stone Woman’ – a worn down statue in the garden of the house which was already there when the house was built. It is said to be that of a pagan goddess. The identity, however, is not important as this statue becomes the hearer of confessions from all the members of the family.

The crisis in the empire and its reasons and its consequences are brought out in a series of discussions that take place in the drawing room of the family. This takes place over several chapters. Meanwhile, the story brings out the various crisis's  of the family itself – both from the past and the present – lost love to evaporated love to new found loves, ancient murders, betrayals and insurrections against the king. At times the crisis within the family and the crisis in the empire coincides – in a murder and in a rebellion.

But the beauty of the book is in the way that all the characters are Ali_lg fleshed out by various narrative means by weaving in the past and the present and bringing in the identity crisis of the empire itself in the lives of the characters. One can actually sense the dark clouds gathering on their lives. Even though the society of the Ottomans have vanished and would seem exotic to us today, the gift of Tariq Ali make them almost next door neighbours. We see the characters in the book as creatures of their circumstances and time, as we all are…

As usual, the book is peopled by characters whose characteristics would stay with you long after you have closed the book. It takes a genius to give such diverse attributes to people in a book that is barely 200 odd pages long and what makes it even better is that all of the characters (except for a couple of exceptions) contribute to the main plot in the story.

As in the other books, this too should be read not only for its historical treatment given to periods which have precious few mainstream books (but which are nevertheless important for our understanding of the world we live in) but also for being a damn good story…



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