After spending time in 1950s Tangier with Tangerine (see previous review), I decided to head further east and go back another thirty years to explore 1920s Istanbul with Lucy’s Foley’s third novel, Last Letter from Istanbul.
1921. Each day Nur gazes across the waters of the Bosphorus to her childhood home, a grand white house, nestled on the opposite bank. Memories float on the breeze the fragrance of the fig trees, the saffron sunsets of languid summer evenings. But now those days are dead.
The house has been transformed into an army hospital, it is a prize of war in the hands of the British. And as Nur weaves through the streets carrying the embroideries that have become her livelihood, Constantinople swarms with Allied soldiers a reminder of how far she and her city have fallen.
The most precious thing in Nur’s new life is the orphan in her care a boy with a terrible secret. When he falls dangerously ill Nur’s world becomes entwined with the enemy’s. She must return to where she grew up, and plead for help from Medical Officer George Monroe.
As the lines between enemy and friend become fainter, a new danger emerges something even more threatening than the lingering shadow of war.
Set during the occupation of Istanbul by allied forces after the First World War, Last Letter from Istanbul tells its story from alternating viewpoints. Those of Nur, a local evicted from her family home and now living with her mother and grandmother in a far less desirable district; the young boy who has been taken in by Nur; George, the army doctor, whose hospital occupies Nur’s former home; and two unnamed characters in the Traveller and the Prisoner. It becomes clear who they are as the novel progresses.
It takes a while for these strands to come together, but once they do, the story envelops you. It’s as if one of Nur’s embroidered shawls wraps around you, bundling you into the story alongside her. Lucy Foley brings the sights, smells and sounds of Istanbul to life in her writing and evokes an impression of what it was like to be there at this moment in the city’s history; a period I didn’t know much about before reading.
It’s a time of uncertainty: there are occupation forces on the streets, refugees arriving on a daily basis and everyone’s hustling to survive. Despite that, for Nur it’s also a time of increased freedom: she can go out to work as a teacher, substituting for her brother who went off to war and hasn’t returned, and she no longer needs to wear the veil when leaving the house. But this freedom is new and not without limitations: she sees the disapproving looks as she walks the streets of her city, and knows that she can only push against long-held customs and norms so much.
This conflict between freedom and propriety swirls around Nur and comes to the fore when she finds herself asking for help. George is the enemy personified and I felt for Nur when she’s in his company because of the internal struggles she endures each time. George seems to have less of an understanding of this because he’s one of the occupying forces and a man, although he’s not without a sense of (somewhat) delayed propriety.
That Nur rescues the boy and takes risks to ensure his well-being tell you a lot about her, especially when events far from home involving another family member come to light, contrasting with her treatment and attitude. I sympathised with the boy as his backstory, and that of others like him, is revealed. But I only truly warmed to him after he makes a discovery of his own in Nur’s home. It’s fascinating how he uses what he finds as a key to the past, while adding his own contribution and ensuring its continuance.
Last Letter from Istanbul is an evocative and emotional novel: it’s a transporting story of family ties, love and sacrifice, and the noble spirit at the heart of it all, which I came to understand and admire.
Last Letter from Istanbul by Lucy Foley is published by Harper Collins. It is available as an audiobook and an ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out on 9th August. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones or Wordery. Find out more about Lucy Foley’s books by visiting her Author Page or you can follow her on Twitter, on Facebook and on Instagram.
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.