The Aviary Gate

The Aviary Gate by Kate Hickman is a lush narrative that reaches back into the sultan's harem of Constantinople, 1599, to relate a bittersweet story of loyalty, love, and loss. Elizabeth is a modern day grad student at Oxford, entangled with a rake and researching captivity narratives for a bid at an MPhil. She stumbles upon some clues that suggest an Englishwoman named Celia Lamprey survived a shipwreck in the late 1500s only to be sold as a slave into the Ottoman sultan's harem. Elizabeth's quest to learn more about the fate of Celia (and to disentangle herself from her own emotional enslavement to a man who doesn't deserve her) takes her from Oxford to Istanbul and while definitive proof can rarely survive four hundred years, sometimes history can reach out and speak to you.

The Aviary Gate goes back and forth between a few months in Elizabeth's present day story and a few days in Celia's narrative. While one might picture luxury and decadence in the harem, Hickman focuses on the lies and secrecy that permeate what is, essentially, a cage for the many women kept at the beck and call of a single sultan. I suppose it's not surprising to suggest that women have been catty for centuries, but it's particularly apparent in a story that features such treachery and backstabbing as women vie to become the Haseki, or favorite concubine of the sultan. There is also the possibility for incredible loyalty between individuals, but that pales in comparison to the terrible bits. When Celia learns that her old fiancee, Paul Pindar, is in Constantinople and might be aware of the fact that she survived the shipwreck... well, it puts her on a desperately hopeful track that ruins any chance she had of embracing the life she's been given in the harem. Hickman keeps the reader on the edge of her seat, wondering if there's any chance that this story might have a happy ending, and ultimately she produces a novel whose strength is in the historical details if not the character relationships.

At one point in the novel, a Turkish academic asks a rather perfectly apt question of Elizabeth: "What is this western obsession with harems?" Clearly the allure is for the sensual aspects, which the novel seems to savor at the beginning, but Hickman quickly veers away from such as complications arise. While Elizabeth's love life takes a turn for the better (she forgets the ass back home and meets up with a desirable Turkish man), Celia has been steadily dipping into a loss of hope as she clings to a simple desire of seeing Paul one last time even if he cannot save her. Hickman really does paint a vivid picture of the Ottoman Empire and the possible lives of women who were lost to the sultan's harem. It's not surprising that an author noted for her nonfiction work would take such care to thoroughly research the period, but all the effort is quite clear. The shift from risque to bittersweet was a bit rough, though, and I found it to be disappointing, as though Hickman wanted to provide some salacious or frightening bits but truly wanted to tell a tragic love story, too, which left things feeling a bit lopsided. There's no creschendo to the tragic love story -- Paul and Celia never speak, Celia never becomes a favorite of the sultan, we don't know if Celia gets to see Paul, we don't see Paul leave Constantinople, we don't see if Celia is executed for her reckless actions. We know that Paul survived and mourned her loss, but that's about it, and we're left unsatisfied.

Given the separation of Celia and Paul, not just by palace walls but by time (for it's been two years since Paul gave Celia up as drowned), it's not surprising that their love story is a bit one-note. We never get to see them interact, so each is simply harboring an image of the other that has been idealized over time. Paul is simply grieving on all levels and Celia seems a bit broken, even as she hopes that she might escape the harem. In novels, one generally finds characters who are willing to take extreme chances in order to change their lives, and even if they fail, they have at least made an attempt. Paul and Celia both abandon the quest quite easily as they understand the odds they're up against. It might be realistic, but it was also quite sad. Celia may have been a much more substantial character as opposed to Paul, but his lack of substance was surprising. My own interpretation was that Paul didn't love Celia enough to risk everything for her and Celia was abandoned to her fate, which quite probably includes drowning... the irony being that everyone originally assumed she had drowned when the ship went down. This time, she'd be tied into a sack and tossed from the palace walls to drown in the river if she was caught trying to open the Aviary Gate so she could see Paul again.

If you're looking for a glimpse at a fascinating time period, then Hickman certainly delivers there, but quite honestly, I would suggest checking out her nonfiction work before you turn to The Aviary Gate.

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