(My review on goodreads)
In this novel, Tariq Ali takes a nuanced stance on empire. The novel is set in the summer of 1899, and the Ottoman empire has been in decline for two centuries, both in terms of its power and influence, and with regard to its intellectual and cultural influence. It is dominated by corrupt officials, a backward clergy, and an inefficient bureacracy. Yet in portraying the crumbling empire Ali seems almost to long for the cosmopolitan empire in preference to the brutal nationalism that was to come. Almost.
I enjoyed this novel: it is centered on an upper-class family with liberal views and unconventional behavior, and by the end of the book we know more about that family than even they do at the beginning. They are portrayed as decent people who have experienced their share of setbacks and disappointments. I suppose we should never feel sympathy for members of the ruling class, of whatever place or era, but Ali goes out of his way to have us do just that. Perhaps he wants us to know that the Islamic world is not one unified thing. Whatever his motivations, he has made a very sympathetic portrait of a mostly likable family.