Thursday 21 August 2014

Book Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

When talking about her novel Honour at the 2013 Bath Literature Festival, Elif Shafak agreed with an audience member that it's still difficult for a young woman in Turkey to break away from the traditional wife and mother role. 'But don’t forget the young men,' she said. 'It’s hard for them, too. Often they don’t know what’s expected any more.'

Honour opens in London in 1992 with the voice of Esma, a Turkish-born London-bred Kurd, about to meet her brother on his release from Shrewsbury prison:
My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten, but I could never find the time or the will or the courage to write about it. That is, until recently. I don't think I'll ever become a real writer and that's quite all right now. I've reached an age at which I'm more at peace with my limitations and failures. But I had to tell the story, even if only to one person. I had to send it into some corner of the universe, where it could float freely away from us. I owed it to Mum, this freedom. And I had to finish it this year. Before he was released from prison. 
The story moves back in time to a remote village near the River Euphrates in 1945, where Esma's mother Pembe and her twin sister Jamila are born. In a family with six daughters already and no sons, they're not exactly welcome. From an early age, they're taught that modesty is a woman's constant shield; men may have honour but women only have shame.
It was all because women were made of the lightest cambric...where men were cut of thick, dark fabric. That is how God had tailored the two: one superior to the other. As to why He had done that, it wasn't up to human beings to question. What mattered was that the colour black didn't show stains, unlike the colour white, which revealed even the tiniest speck of dirt. By the same token, women who were sullied would be instantly noticed and separated from the rest, like husks removed from grains. 
The girls grow up, identical but with contrasting personalities; Pembe spirited and adventurous, Jamila quieter and home-loving. Yet it's Pembe who marries Adem and has three children, Iskender, Esma and Yunus, fulfilling her wish to travel by moving with her family to Istanbul then London and leaving her unwed twin behind.

With Adem increasingly plagued by his own demons, tradition dictates that Iskender, young and uncertain behind his bullying veneer, must become head of the household. Determined to protect his family's honour by applying a different set of standards to his mother and sister than to his western girlfriend, he makes a series of decisions which will ultimately end in tragedy.

Not only are there time-shifts within Honour but also multiple viewpoints; from early in the narrative Iskender writes in prison as the days move closer to his release. Back in 1970s London, Pembe must adapt to a world with different values, while her children forge their own identities. Like so many parents before her, she wonders at their differences;
While Iskender craved to control the world, and Esma to change it for once and for all, Yunus wanted to comprehend it.
In a parallel story, Jamila, revered as the 'Virgin Midwife', lives out her days on the fringes of Kurdish society, riven by dreams and premonitions. It's through Esma that Shafak draws all the threads together, darting back and forth between the decades, circling ever closer until she reveals the ultimate, heart-wrenching sequence of events.

Honour exposes the conflict between traditional beliefs which have remained unchanged for centuries and the greater freedoms of a multicultural society. From the very first, this novel's twisted secrets and intrigues draw the reader in and, although the fragmented and frequent changes of time-frame have the potential to confuse, Shafak creates all her characters with such compassion that the motives of each one, however flawed, can be understood. As she reveals the complexities behind the family turmoil that leads to shock headlines of 'honour killing', her words at the literature festival, that it's hard for men too, still resonate.

Shafak's prose has a haunting, lyrical quality; a fusion of magical realism and storytelling on an epic scale. Writing in both English and and her native Turkish, she's an extremely popular author in Turkey and now more widely receiving the recognition she richly deserves; Honour was longlisted for both the Asian Man Booker Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013.

Shafak dedicates Honour to ' those who hear, those who see' and makes it a little easier for us all to do so.

Honour is published in the UK by Penguin and available here. Thanks to my lovely daughter Livvy for giving me this book.


  1. Love the quotes you chose. Such beautiful writing. This sounds like a powerful, thoughtful story...and maybe a little heartbreaking, too. Thanks for the review. I'm adding this book to my TBR list. :)

  2. That's good to hear! It is heartbreaking in many ways but also illuminating - hope you enjoy it


I'd love to hear what you think! Please let me know in the box below