Not since Pi Patel in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has this reviewer found a more engaging, adventurous child as Eleanora Cohen in Michael David Lukas’ The Oracle of Stamboul. Wherever Eleanora goes, a flock of birds, purple-and-white hoopoes, follows, even presiding over her 1877 birth in Constanta, a town on the Black Sea. Two Tartar midwives, who assist in the delivery, said signs led them to the girl. She is, the mysterious women, claim, part of a prophecy: “They had read all the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the North Star in alignment with the moon. It was a prophecy that their last king had given on his deathbed” (3).
Leah Cohen does not survive her daughter’s birth. Yakob Cohen, a carpet salesman, appeals to his sister-in-law Ruxandra for help raising Eleanora, and they marry. Although Ruxandra is not a wicked stepmother, she is not loving, kind, or understanding either. Eleanora shows signs of great intellectual promise at a young age, yet women were supposed to marry, have children, and keep house. Ruxandra sees that Eleanora is special, like her own sister, and jealousy causes her to keep Eleanora away from a classical education and pushes her toward household chores instead. This makes Eleanora miserable.
When her father announces that he is going on business to Stamboul, Eleanora stows away on his ship. Mr. Cohen, angry at first, soon relents and yields. His daughter can stay the month with him; together, father and daughter enjoy the sights and sounds of exotic Stamboul. Terrible tragedy strikes, however, and Eleanora is left in the care of Moncef Bey, her father’s business partner. It is here that the novel lags. Eleanora refuses to speak, communicating with others only through written messages. Readers at this crucial juncture in the novel are so taken with Eleanora that they crave her voice and are more than ready when she does finally decide to speak again.
The novel picks back up with a whirlwind pace as Eleanora’s tutor may or may not be a spy. Indeed, many in Lukas’ novel are not what they seem, even Moncef Bey who we learn has a secret history of his own. But it is Eleanora with her remarkable intellect and sharp wit that is the focus. One character almost as fascinating as Eleanora is the Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918) who was deposed by the Young Turks in 1908.
Is Eleanora the one who fulfills the prophecy? As she solves puzzles and speaks in tongues, under the watchful eyes of her flock, readers will wonder. This book has it all: magic, palace intrigue, prophecy, and riddles. Yet, through it all, Lukas still manages to keep it real. At the heart of this remarkable debut is an eight-year-old girl who is uncertain and afraid. Faced with two choices, Eleanora eschews them both and carves out her own future, free of birds and perhaps free of oracles. Readers will love Eleanora Cohen and take her into their hearts.