“The Stone Woman” is the third book in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet. It is a family story based in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th Century. The Sultanate is feeble and near collapse as Russia and the colonial states of England, France, and Germany jockey for position and de facto control. The family of Iskender Pasha is a non-traditional one whose noble lineage is contrived and whose outlook is secular.
The scene is set at the summer estate of Iskender Pasha on the Sea of Marmara. There is a confessional composed of stone to which each of the characters attends to reveal more stories. In the oral tradition nature of the Middle East and East, this is a novel of tales. The narrator is Nilofer, a daughter of one of Iskender Pasha’s wives. Relationships, culture and history are imparted through the various tales.
While homosexuality existed from ancient times, I am always suspect when they become part of the narrative and have no substantive development. This is the case with one near lesbian relationship, but not with a male homosexual relationship. Neither are sexual in description, but the relationships are expressed and in the case of the male relationship are known and accepted by the extended family. The short chapter that hints at a lesbian relationship seems a little more contrived and it made me wonder if this was done for some commercial meta tag benefit (although the book was originally published in 2000, so this might be unlikely).
The novel is a pleasant read and might be better if read in the context of all five novels within the quintet.
The author is principally a writer of non-fiction, journalist and filmmaker who as a British Pakistani focuses on India, Pakistan, and Islamic fundamentalism. He is outspokenly liberal and contributor to the New Left Review, Sin Permiso and The Guardian.