Discover the Best Fiction Books Set in Turkey

One way to prepare your visit to a strange land is to read about it in travel guide books. However, you can also delve into the culture and history of a country by discovering its writers and their works.  Local novels are set in interesting places around beautiful and fascinating cities around the country such as İzmir and even Kars. Kars is a city in the Northeast of the country, near the border with Georgia. It features heavily in Orham Pamuk’s book Snow.

You can discover that there is more than just the cultural and historical city of Istanbul, with day trips to Edirne and Bursa, for instance. Then there are also some well-preserved architectural sites and archaeological excavations all over the country. This includes all of Anatolia, not just in Istanbul but also in other cities such as İzmir and Bodrum. Discover at least 10 more places other than Istanbul that you can explore in our piece on Outside Istanbul: 10 Cities and Attractions to Visit. Furthermore, check out our list of archaeological sites that give you a glimpse into the country’s ancient history with places such as the 12,000 years-old Göbeklitepe!

Famous Turkish Writers

Prepare your sights by reading authors such as Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most prominent novelists and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. His stories are all mostly based in Istanbul with some exceptions. Titles such as Istanbul: Memories and the City is mostly autobiographical but a great guide to the city. However, it’s the fictional works that are more imaginative and fascinating. Works such as Cevdat Bey and his Sons, My Name Is Red, The Museum of Innocence, A Strangeness in My Mind and Snow are all set in Istanbul as well as other parts of the country such as Kars.

Then there’s award-winning writer and activist, Elif Şafak! A British-Turkish author who has written 19 books that are mostly set in the country of her birth. She heavily deals with socio-cultural themes and mostly the plight of women. To discover more of her works and the issues she covers, check out these titles: Honor, Three Daughters of Eve and The Forty Rules of Love. Then, there’s also her most recent work:10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

Now, let’s get into the wonderful world of fiction that Turkey’s foremost writers who have given us some wonderful stories. Here are 10 wonderful stories set in Turkey!

Forbidden Love by Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil

Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil was an important writer in the late years of the Ottoman Empire and was part of the New Literature movement. His style can be loosely based on French Romanticism (think Madame Bovary) as well liberal usage of loanwords from other languages. The main themes of the story is forbidden or unfulfilled love. 

One of his most important works is his 1899 romance novel Aşk-ı Memnu (“Forbidden Love” in English). The book has a lot of Ottoman loanwords and can be an interesting read with a dictionary in hand for those unfamiliar with Turkish. You’ve been warned. The book was serialized and became an internationally popular TV series of the same name (2008-2010). 

The book revolves around a well-to-do family on the Bosphorus’ shores. The characters have to deal with the realities of falling in and out of love and the intense desire to be loved. The main characters in the book are Behlul, Bihter, Nihal along with Adnan. They have to deal with the consequences of their feelings and the subsequent actions they undertake to be seen and loved and to feel free. Bonus: lots of Istanbul scenes that will keep you entertained and bring you back to that city! 

Memed, My Hawk by Yaşar Kemal

Image by Penguin NZ

This is Yaşar Kemal’s most famous and first novel, called Ince Memed in Turkish, won him Turkey’s highest literary prize in 1955. However, foreign readers had to wait until 1961 to read the book. The novel is written in the most beautiful lyrical poetry that only Yaşar Kemal can offer, with some Robin Hood overtones. It highlights the struggles of the people who toil the land they call home.

In this famous novel, the protagonist is a young slave boy living in rural central Anatolia. He escapes the tyranny of a cruel landowner, who beats him and his mother. He looks to the mountains and the bandits living in it. Hiding out in the rough country of the Taurus mountains, he still manages to also have a moral compass and a good heart. The landscape and the country also come alive in the pages of the book along with the people who live there and their pain and struggles as farmers and herders.

The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar

Book cover art by Jim Tierney

The Time Regulation Institute is a Kafka-esque (think The Trial) is a satirical exploration of society. The story takes place during a time locked between the old world of the Ottoman empire and the new Western one. It explores an absurb institution that’s supposed to regulate time. You also discover the life of Hayri Irdai, a bureaucrat working in this nonsensical institute. Hayri narrates the novel and the story becomes his memoir of sorts as he takes on the strange task of regulating time. In contrast, we also get introduced to Dr. Ramiz who seems the complete opposite of Hayri as he is the embodiment of progress, culture and science.

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence tells a story of a son of one of the richest families of Istanbul, Kemal. He carries an obsessive love for a beautiful woman, Fusun. This love leads him to a habit of collecting objects touched and used by her.

The book highlights the city’s and perhaps even the country’s oscillation between East and West, both physically and culturally. The book also features Istanbul and the lives of the people who live there. And interestingly, Pamuk has built himself and for enthusiasts of his work an actual Museum of Innocence. The real museum features objects and trinkets from the book as well. You can visit it in the charming antique-filled neighbourhood of Çukurcuma, open since 2012.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Safak

Image by Penguin AU

A tangled story of two families and their history is what this book is about. It’s also a beautiful book about the chaotic city of Istanbul. A deserving character in the book, situated between two different continents and between two worlds, through the story you discover the city too. A balance between liberal attitudes and also traditional customs and values.

The book deals with an important event in Ottoman history: the Armenian genocide question. It still plagues Turkey today even after more than 100 years as. In the story, when a young Armenian girl, Armanoush travels to Istanbul, she discovers links to a great tragedy. This is her quest to discover who she is and where she comes from. You can find some great female characters in the Kazanci sisters and Asya to tell a powerful story about a tragedy that needs to be acknowledged and talked about.

Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin

Set during the WW2, the Last Train to Istanbul, by Turkey’s most beloved author brings an exciting love story to life in the face of Nazi occupation of France. This story won the Best Novel Award by the European Council Jewish Community.

Selva, a daughter of one of the last Ottoman officials and Rafael, a Jewish son of a physician, fall in love and elope to Paris despite all odds against them. Unfortunately for them, the Nazis invade France just as things are looking up and they have to risk their lives by catching the last train to Istanbul. This journey arranged by Turkish diplomats to save Jewish lives from the Nazis, the lovers have to travel through war-torn Europe in a train that will bring them their freedom.

Sleeping In The Forest: Stories and Poems by Sait Faik

Faik is one of Turkey’s finest short stories writers and poets. Here he presents 22 stories and poems among other writings in this volume titled Sleeping in the Forest. It has been translated by Turkey’s finest translators and published in 2004.

Most of Faik’s work highlights common characters with unique connections to the four seas of the country. You can also find the inhabitants such as fishermen, priests, laborers, and the poor who call the chaotic city of Istanbul and its accompanying islands and their shores home. His unique characters are common folk with human failings. That is, those who are bound to their harsh realities of their lives and the lands they inhabit. Read this collection of books as you take a short train ride or a blue cruise in the turqouise waters of the Aegean and the Mediterranean.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie sure doesn’t disappoint with her mysterious murder mystery solved her famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The story takes place aboard the legendary Orient Express that travelled from Paris to Istanbul. The real one travelled from Paris to Vienna then to Constantinople/Istanbul (Sirkeci).

In the story, the train’s schedule is disrupted by heavy snow but there’s something more sinister at play: a murder on the train! The first few chapters are based in Istanbul and later the story moves to Yugoslavia. 

Seven Houses: A Novel by Alev Lytle Croutier

Born in Western city of Izmir, Croutier went on to study the arts at Robert College and other prestigious institutes abroad.  In her story Seven Houses, Croutier weaves an amazing tale of a family of silk-makers, aptly named İpekçi (silk-maker — last names in Turkish). Four generations of women are the main protagonists in the story who undergo the ups and downs of their lives. The houses they inhabit tell their tales with exquisite detail of their family’s dwellings in exotic locations such as Mouth Olympos, in Antalya! As the family changes houses, they encounter changing fortunes in a new country, equally facing modernization, securalization and changing attitudes.

Places such as a gorgeous villa in the Pearl of the Aegean, Smyrna, a silk plantation in Antalya, small houses in sleepy Anatolian towns all the way to a mundane apartment high-rise tell the women’s stories in this unique tale. Traditions, changing clothes, hairstyles and food capture the reader and enthrall us with their details.

A House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy

One of Brazil’s newest voices in literature has written a beautiful but confusing story about identity and family history. Tatiana Salem Levy, a young writer, explores the meaning of belonging and identity in this tale that stretches across the Atlantic to Europe and beyond (Smyrna in present day Izmir). It won the author an English PEN award.

The House in Smyrna is a story about loss and redemption and finding yourself. The book begins as the narrator accepts a challenge to travel to Izmir and open the door to the house that belonged to her grandfather. Levy weaves an intriguing tale of family tragedy and suffering. She details her grandfather’s life and migration to Brazil, her parent’s exile in Portugal and even the impact that her own relationship with a violent man, as she finds herself. Her narration in first person through different perspectives help us place her in the exploration of her family’s displacement. The story highlights how lives can change quickly leading to displacement and tragedy.

The House of Smyrna is a sad story but it’s a captivating tale. Smyrna is an ancient name for Izmir, the third-largest city in Turkey. It still has a sizable Jewish population and Levantines (the non-Muslim population of the Middle East during the Ottoman era). The book could do better at its portrayal of modern Turkey and Islam. It needs a more nuanced look at the complex interactions of politics, power and religion in modern Turkey.