Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, also known as Amy, likes to spend her evenings in an Internet chat room called Café Constantinopolis, “designed by a bunch of Greek Americans, Sephardim Americans, and Armenian Americans who…all were the grandchildren of families once based in Istanbul.” It’s here that she first learns, from one Baron Baghdassarian, about the Janissary’s Paradox, the choice that faced young Christian boys taken by the Ottoman state and given the chance to rise in the imperial capital so long as they forgot their history and their faith. “You the child of expatriates!” admonishes Baron. “You need to ask yourself this age-old question time and again: What will your position be with regards to this paradox; are you going to accept the role of the Janissary?”

The question, posed in Elif Shafak’s new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, will be familiar to every child of immigrants; for the expatriate writer it brings a particular set of literary choices. The imperial capital offers some preferment for intimate stories in English about one’s community of origin: David Bezmozgis, Aleksandar Hemon, Bharati Mukherjee, Panos Karnezis and recently Yiyun Li have all been successful in this way. But the greatest prizes are still reserved for the descendants of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: big novels where the characters represent some aspect of the history of a people or the experience of migration, and where the tricks and mirrors of postmodernism reflect the writer’s cultural ambivalence. As Ömer, a Turkish student, says in Shafak’s previous book, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, “When you are a foreigner, you can’t be your humble self any more. I am my nation, my place of birth. I am everything except me.”

Shafak knows what it is to be impaled on the Janissary’s Paradox. Born in France to Turkish parents and raised in Spain by her diplomat mother, she now divides her time between Istanbul and the University of Arizona, where she teaches in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Her first four novels, written in Turkish, were highly praised in her home country; her switch to English for The Saint of Incipient Insanities was viewed by some as a cultural betrayal. The Bastard of Istanbul, also written in English but published first in Turkey, takes on the most bitterly contested moment in her country’s history: the deportation and systematic massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman state during World War I. The Armenian genocide is still officially denied in Turkey; the subject has become a battleground in the culture war between liberal intellectuals and the nationalist right. The novel led to Shafak’s indictment for “insulting Turkishness” under a recent law that was also used against Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. She was acquitted, but the war is not only symbolic. Since the assassination this January of Hrant Dink, a liberal Armenian-Turkish editor convicted under the law, Shafak has lived under police protection in Turkey and all but canceled her American book tour.

Shafak has always been drawn to the margins and hidden pockets of Turkey’s history. Her first two (untranslated) novels were about Sufi mystics and Sephardic Jews. The Flea Palace explores the life of a run-down Istanbul apartment building; The Gaze is a baroque extravaganza spanning several centuries, theoretically tied together by the idea of the female body seen through men’s eyes. Though full of startling images and wild invention, these books are heavy going, at least in translation. Like Pamuk, whose influence is evident in her formal games and cool, authoritative storyteller’s voice, Shafak makes few concessions to the reader’s wish for emotionally engaging characters or narrative momentum. The metaphors and fables and digressions pile up endlessly, as if the writer were afraid of silence, nervously twirling and performing on the page to dazzle and impress.

But when she drops her guard she can cut straight to the heart. Near the end of The Gaze we enter the mind of a little girl who puts ground glass in the dumplings and hangs the neighbor’s cat from a branch of the cherry tree; gradually we learn that she’s been orally raped in the coal shed at the back of her grandmother’s garden. The telling is restrained, locked up inside the child’s imagination, threaded through with the color of blood and illicitly eaten cherries. Whatever its origins, this haunting story holds the roots of Shafak’s recurring themes: guilt and the dark side of women’s pleasures; double selves; food and bulimia; memory and forgetting.

Shafak first came to America in 2002; The Saint of Incipient Insanities, published two years later by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, was a dizzyingly energetic assault on her new language and culture. Peppered with expensive words as well as sentences that aren’t quite English, the novel hurls itself against the solipsism of America, as seen by a charmingly neurotic group of foreign students. The book is a mess, but in a cheerful, slapdash way, as if the language had unleashed some comic genie inside the author’s head. Its satirical riffs are pleasingly poison-tipped, and the comedy is backed by an unyielding bleakness, an absolute refusal of nostalgia. Through the story of a pair of mismatched lovers–Ömer from Istanbul and Gail, formerly Zarpandit, a brittle, Zizek-reading Jewish girl obsessed with chocolate–we come to see that the immigrants’ sense of being “in between” is not just cultural: It is a form of the existential vertigo that makes Gail throw herself, on her first visit to Istanbul, from the Bosporus Bridge, halfway between the European and Asian shores.

Shafak’s first foray into English fiction reads a bit like a defensive strike: Look, here I am, ready to pin you down before you can mispronounce my name, streets ahead of all your expectations. The Bastard of Istanbul, for all its flaws, is a braver and deeper book. Shafak has used the familiar form of the diaspora family saga as an asbestos glove with which to grasp the afterlife of the Armenian catastrophe. Her novel features the requisite cast of colorful female characters, elaborately described meals (the chapters are named after foods), fragments of folk tales, improbable coincidences and even a recipe for the Turkish sweet ashure. (“I feel like I am in a Gabriel García Márquez novel,” Armanoush types to her buddies in the Café Constantinopolis.) The pace and showiness of this kind of fiction doesn’t allow for very much imaginative empathy, but in her struggle to inhabit her material, Shafak begins to become a different kind of writer, less facile, more attentive to uncertainty.

The novel’s Turkish and Armenian threads are carried by two young women, Asya and Armanoush, who are in many ways each other’s mirror image. Asya Kazanci is the bastard of the title; the novel opens with her mother, Zeliha, mysteriously failing to abort her. Both Asya and Zeliha are familiar from Shafak’s earlier fictions: brash, brittle women, in your face and “fragile as a tea glass.” They live in Istanbul with Zeliha’s three sisters, mother and grandmother, all broadly drawn in mildly satirical tones, each one representing some aspect of Turkish identity. In the Kazanci family the men always die young; the only son, Mustafa, has been sent to America to escape his fate. There he marries Rose, a ditzy American woman with bulimic tendencies who seduces him to spite the family of her Armenian-American ex-husband, Barsam Tchakhmakhchian–the father of her daughter, Armanoush.

The Tchakhmakhchian clan, living in San Francisco, is similarly lightly sketched (no mean feat for an outsider, let alone a Turk), and their commitment to the memory of suffering, although not disrespected, is understood as a part of their immigrant identity:

What will that innocent lamb tell her friends when she grows up?… My name is Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, all my family tree has been Something Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustafa! What kind of a joke is that?

At the same time, the parallels between the Turkish and Armenian matriarchies are constantly underlined (they eat the same foods, slightly differently spelled), and when Armanoush grows up, her love for her father’s family, especially her grandmother Shushan, leads her to go looking for the missing part of herself in the Café Constantinopolis. Shafak describes Armanoush’s search for her roots with gentle sympathy; it is as if, in writing about the daughter of an oppressed minority, she can allow herself to express nostalgia for her own Turkish childhood. Armanoush takes a test on the web to measure how Armenian she is and scores full marks: “If you grew up sleeping under hand woven blankets or wearing hand woven cardigans to school…. If you have had (or are planning to have) a nose job…. If your dad still peels oranges for you, no matter what age you might have reached….”

Without telling her parents, Armanoush flies to Istanbul in order to find her past and stays with the Kazancis. Auntie Cevriye, the resident nationalist, expects Asya to represent her people to the American girl: “The Westerners need to see that we are not like Arabs at all…. The Americans have mostly been brainwashed by the Greeks and the Armenians who unfortunately arrived in the United States before the Turks did.” But Asya herself–rebellious, brooding, Johnny Cash-obsessed–intends nothing of the kind. She and her friends at the Café Kundera (so named because “this spot in space was nothing but a figment of his flawed imagination”) are intellectuals, unmoved by the Ottoman past or their country’s forward march. The “real civilization gap,” says Asya’s married lover, is not between East and West but between “the Turks and the Turks”:

What is left for us?… Where can we possibly escape to? Nihilists, pessimists and anarchists are not regarded as a minority, although we are an extinct species…. Everyone but us is obsessed with entering the EU, making profits, buying stocks, trading up their cars, and trading up their girlfriends.

Through the Kazanci family and the habitués of the Café Kundera, Shafak has herself contrived to represent her nation to the Americans, though not in the way that Auntie Cevriye would like. At the same time, in writing about the Armenians, she has set out to represent her nation to itself. It is here that the novel faces its hardest test, both as a political intervention and as a work of art.

Armanoush’s family is obsessed with memory; the Kazancis are committed to forgetting: “The past is nothing but a shackle we need to get rid of. Such an excruciating burden.” When Armanoush drops the bombshell of her Armenian ancestry (with unconvincing haste), the Kazancis react with bland incomprehension. “Tell me, is it true that System of a Down [an Armenian-American band] hates us?” asks Asya; Zeliha remarks on the similarities between Turkish and Armenian names. As Armanoush bluntly relates her family’s tragic story, the disconnection persists. “Who did this atrocity?” asks Auntie Cevriye. “What a shame, what a sin, are they not human?” adds Auntie Feride. Armanoush realizes what she’s up against:

Slowly it dawned on Armanoush that perhaps she was waiting for an admission of guilt, if not an apology. And yet that apology had not come, not because they had not felt for her, for it looked as if they had, but because they had seen no connection between themselves and the perpetrators of the crimes.

Ironically, in the Café Kundera, where Asya shows off her controversial friend, the response is less equivocal: “The word Armenian wouldn’t surprise anyone at Café Kundera, but Armenian American was a different story…. Armenian American meant someone who despised the Turks.” All heads turn toward Armanoush; needled by Asya, somebody takes offense and gives the official line: It was a time of war, people died on both sides. A fight briefly breaks out before ennui is comfortably restored.

Shafak is careful to sketch in the different shades of Turkish defensiveness, as well as to consider what responsibility we bear for our fathers’ crimes, especially when the wound has outlived the perpetrators. She is less nuanced–understandably, perhaps–on the feelings of the Armenians. In the chat room of the Café Constantinopolis, Asya asks the irate Armenian-Americans what, as an ordinary Turk, she can do to ease their pain. Implacable at first, one of them says she must apologize in front of the Turkish state, before Baron Baghdassarian cuts the discussion short:

Some among the Armenians in the diaspora would never want the Turks to recognize the genocide…. Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood. Apparently there are some old habits that need to be changed on both sides.

These are mature and necessary sentiments, but they sidestep Asya’s difficult question about reparations. Shafak knows that; she also knows that a novelist’s way of owning responsibility for someone else’s suffering might be to try to enter into it imaginatively. And so she reaches for the wand of magic realism, brings on a literal genie or two, and makes the clairvoyant Auntie Banu conjure up Armanoush’s ancestor, Hovhannes Stamboulian, inside a silver bowl of consecrated water.

Over the course of The Bastard of Istanbul, the writing becomes more fluid and more confident. The nervous tics that clutter Shafak’s earlier prose–the riffs and lists, digressions and repetitions–begin to make way for richer characters: Asya’s grandmother as a young married woman in the early days of the Turkish Republic; gentle Aram, Zeliha’s Armenian lover in Istanbul. Hovhannes Stamboulian is almost one of them, as he strokes the walnut desk where he writes his Armenian folk tales and feels its glossy surface “glide under his fingers,” as he worries about his wayward eldest son. The sergeant who comes to take him away is well imagined, too: “There was no discernible hostility in his voice but no empathy either. He sounded as if he was tired, and whatever the reason he was here for, he wanted to be done as fast as possible and be gone.”

And yet there’s something about this scene that feels too easy, that will not quite do. Partly it’s the folkloric poeticism of the tale Hovhannes is writing, about a pigeon and a pomegranate tree. Partly it’s the veiled beauty of the telling. Partly it’s the way we are rushed through the grimmest events, so that the forced march of the Armenian deportees is given in one sentence stretched over half a page. Again, Shafak is aware of the problem: When Auntie Banu averts her eyes, the genie harangues her with more details about lice and orphanages. Wondering whether she will ever tell Armanoush what she has learned about her family’s past, Auntie Banu returns us to the novel’s persistent question: What is the use of remembering? What is knowledge good for if you can’t change anything?

The question is not unreasonable, but in the context of this book it feels like a small evasion, as if the author had conflated a literary problem with a moral, historical one. You feel that Auntie Banu turns away not because she can’t bear what she’s seeing but because the writer is in a hurry to move on. The form Shafak has chosen for her novel is in part to blame, for how could anyone imagine the experience of the Armenian genocide inside a single chapter of a noisy family saga, packed with meals and quarrels and satirical vignettes? Such things require time and patience, the willingness to stay inside a situation until it has given up all its most painful secrets; these are not qualities Shafak has cultivated.

After these difficult passages the novel races with relief toward its end. The historical primal scene is displaced by a personal one in which the young Zeliha is raped by her brother Mustafa; revenge, of sorts, is served and eaten cold. The Turkish and Armenian families turn out, through a neat coincidence, to be intimately linked. The prose reverts to the style of Shafak’s earlier work, which tends to value ideas over emotional realism, breadth and speed over depth and concentration. In political terms, The Bastard of Istanbul is a brave, ambitious book, speaking honestly both to Turkish nationalists and to Armenians in diaspora. As a novel, though, it never quite transcends its programmatic conception. For all her public fearlessness and her ferocious talent, Shafak has yet to find the quieter courage needed to let her inventions surprise her and come to life.