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Last Letter from Istanbul by Lucy Foley

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Article by Swirl and Thread ©.
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Described as ‘an epic story that vividly captures the heartbreaking turmoil of forbidden love, against a richly drawn backdrop of a legendary city steeped in history and myth.’

Last Letter from Istanbul is a book that encouraged me to carry out a little bit of research, as the history of Turkey is something I know very little about. In 1921, Istanbul, as we now know it, was known as Constantinople, a city that has seen so many changes over the centuries, a city steeped in a history that carries with it the turmoil of a people. I recall watching a program that the wonderful Joanna Lumley presented, entitled ‘Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey’ and in one episode she spoke with a man who recounted his memories from when the borders were set up between Greece and Turkey, when neighbourhoods were torn apart and where there was the forced mass migration of a ethnic culture. I shed tears as I watched that program, as the inhumanity of this time was so evident in this old man’s face. Beyond that I really had no idea of any of the historical details from that time. Reading Lucy Foley’s book, although a fictional tale, stirred my interest again in this era.

By 1921 the Allied soldiers had well established themselves in the city of Constantinople. The local inhabitants remained fearful with many also carrying a great hatred against these invaders. The Allies took over their homes and buildings, taking up residence in what were once the grand homes of Turkish traders and successful business people. For one inhabitant, Nur, this occupation, and the war leading up to it, has taken everything from her. Her gentle brother, a teacher, never returned home from fighting and is now presumed dead. Her mother is unable to cope since and struggles daily to deal with her loss. Nur now resides in cramped living conditions with her mother, grandmother and a young orphaned boy, who Nur has committed herself to looking after. Nur’s only little bit of pleasure is her very occasional, and very secret, visits to her old family home across the Bosphorus river.

Before the war Nur lived a happy and very comfortable existence in a beautiful mansion, a place where she had a wonderful upbringing with warm childhood memories. But following the war and the occupation of her beloved city, all that changed as her home fell under the authority of the British Army and was transformed into a hospital.

On one of these secret visits Nur is discovered by Dr George Monroe, a medical officer in the British army and to Nur, a sworn enemy. This is not to be their first encounter and as a reader we witness how their tentative but very delicate relationship develops over a period of time.

Last Letter from Istanbul has a number of stories running in parallel as we get different perspectives from five individuals – Nur, The Traveller, The Boy, The Prisoner and George. We experience the searing heat of an occupied Constantinople in 1921, but we are also transported back to the brutal elements of the Winter harshness of the Russian front. We witness the horrors of the Egyptian Desert with the relentless sun’s insufferable burning of it’s captors and we accompany a man, making his journey across Europe, back to a place that holds many, many memories.

The story of Nur and George, and all the other characters in this novel, are interwoven against the most spectacular backdrop of mysterious and far-flung locations. Lucy Foley writes such beautiful prose. Her descriptions are so very vivid. Last Letter from Istanbul is not a fast-paced page turner but a slow-burning tale of passion, secrets and lies. It is a book that encompasses the writings of many authors whose work I have admired, with the atmospheric visuals of a Victoria Hislop novel and the comparable writing, in one man’s story, that are reminiscent of a Paulo Coelho novel, to the brutal and graphic story that, for me was a reminder of Sebastian Faulks’ great novel, Birdsong.

Last Letter from Istanbul is a compelling and sweeping tale that crosses decades and takes the reader on a captivating journey through the tumultuous history of a nation that has struggled to maintain an identity, a nation that struggles to find peace.

Atmospheric. Evocative. Wistful.

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.