Feeling the winter blues creeping in and in need of an escape? The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, a gorgeous little gem of a book, will immerse you in an exotic world of heat, colour, love and friendship. ‘Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.’
Middle-aged American housewife Ella Rubinstein has a husband, three teenage children and a beautiful home. From the outside, everything appears perfect. Yet there is a terrible emptiness at the heart of Ella’s life – an emptiness that was once filled by love.
Ella feels the years are passing her by, slipping through her fingers in a blur of mundane tasks and domestic drudgery. A full-blown mid-life crisis threatens to upset her ordered, rather sedate existence.
In an attempt to shake things up, Ella takes a job as a reader for a literary agency where her first task is to review a curious, quirky manuscript entitled Sweet Blasphemy about the 13th-century poet Rumi and his relationship with the Sufi mystic and wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz. Finding herself shocked out of her bland existence by the author’s words, Ella begins an email correspondence with the author Aziz Zahara that changes her life forever.
Shafak develops two parallel narratives separated by many centuries as she mirrors the present-day relationship between Ella and Aziz with the one that takes place in the 13th century between Shams and Rumi. Ella discovers that Sham’s 40 rules or lessons of love offer an insight into an ancient philosophy based on unity, and that the presence of love in each and every one of us can be brought to bear on our own modern-day life and dilemmas.
Just like Shams, who transforms Rumi from an unhappy cleric into a committed mystic and passionate poet, Zahara sets Ella free and teaches her that ‘A life without love is of no account.’
This delightful novel transports its reader into the exotic, bejewelled world of 13th century Istanbul, with its vivid colours, sounds and smells, and explores the fierce, painful beauty of love in its many different guises. Through the medium of historical fiction, Shafak brings to life a world of Sufi mysticism and verse where faith and love sit side by side. The Forty Rules of Love acts as an excellent introduction to Sufism as well as to Rumi and the Shams of Tabriz, and its appealing message is that ‘love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life.’
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak is published by Penguin, 368 pages.
Now listen to the hugely inspirational Elif Shafak’s TED talk about the politics of fiction.