In 1788, Algerian pirates kidnapped Aimée du Buc de Rivery, a thirteen-year-old girl on her way home to Martinique from school in France. Hints in the historical record suggest that Aimée, a cousin of the future Empress Josephine, was given to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In his harem, renamed Nakshidil, she rose from the position of odalisque, a lowly slave, to that of valide, effective ruler of the seraglio.
The author’s knowledge of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century Ottoman Empire allows her to build a convincing case for Aimée as Nakshidil. The internal foment and external threats to the empire are presented so succinctly, readers unfamiliar with the historical context can easily follow the threads. The book succeeds best in its depiction of the lonely, claustrophobic, and yet oddly pampered daily life within the seraglio.
However, as historical fiction the book falls somewhat flat. The novel is an extended flashback, framing Nakshidil’s story between her peaceful death and its aftermath. There is never any doubt Nakshidil will achieve her ambitions; the only question is how. The answer is supplied by the quasi-omniscient Tulip, a palace eunuch who relates the way Nakshidil infused the seraglio with French culture while avoiding the intriguing of rivals. Unfortunately, Tulip’s omniscience is too contrived and never entirely convincing. With his ear for languages, he conveniently attends the major conferences of state as a translator. As Nakshidi’s friend and protector, he is conveniently present at every significant event in her life, even peeking through peepholes when the sultan takes her to bed.
The premise is fascinating, the historical detail rich. But as the story jumped back and forth in time, often conflating the thoughts of narrator and heroine, I found myself wishing the author had let Nakshidil tell her own tale.