Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Honour by Elif Shafak (review)

The first chapter of Honour by Elif Shafak begins with an abrupt and dark declaration: "My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten..." It was too deliberately attention-seeking. Esma, who mourns her mother's death, is the first narrator of the intricate story of an honour killing.

"Pembe and Adem Torpak leave Turkey for London. There they make new lives for their family. Yet the traditions and beliefs of their home come with them - carried in the blood of their children, Iskender and Esma. Trapped by past mistakes, the Torpak children find their lives torn apart and transformed by a brutal and chilling crime".

The book follows several generations of the Turkish-Kurdish family. The narrative changes locations and times, from the Kurdish village in 1945 to Istanbul in the 1950s to London in the 1970s and the Shrewsbury prison in 1990s, going backwards and forward, like a fluttering butterfly.

Esma's voice is interrupted by her elder brother's Iskender's narrative. It is a tapestry of memories and stories, patiently and intricately woven like the famous hand-knotted Turkish rugs.

This novel is a powerful story which encompasses a plethora of themes like tradition versus modernity, love and the lack of it, violence and submission, betrayal and loyalty. Some tales are extremely poignant and intense.

The story of the twins' births was a stroke of genius. Naze, an embittered woman who already had six daughters, is left betrayed by Allah for giving her twin girls rather than a much-coveted son that she goes silent for the next 45 days. Only when accosted by the elders of the village who accused her of sacrilege, she opens her mouth to name her daughters Bext and Bese, Destiny and Enough. That was her way of "declaring to Allah that she had her fill of daughters... and He had to give her a son and nothing but a son". The father, however, was against sending the petition to the skies and offered his alternatives: Pembe and Jamila - Pink and Beautiful. "Names like sugar cubes that melted in your tea, sweet and yielding, with no sharp edges".

I felt that the author is at her strongest when she writes about the old culture and traditions. The story of Hediye, a "disgraced" elder daughter who was served an empty cauldron with a rope as the family's cruel order to commit suicide, is totally heart-breaking. The little rebel Pembe includes a motif of a letter H as a reminder of her sister's name in the carpet which would be sold abroad and which would carry a memory of her sister forever.

Jamila's midwifery has also been painted with the mighty strokes. These were the pages that I found myself fascinated the most with. The naming of Iskender, the birth stories, the Amber Concubine's plot line...

As an expat, I have also sympathized with Pembe's life in London. Though I came to the UK to do an MA and already had a degree in English lit, through the years I have encountered my share of people who look down at you for not being a British-born citizen, who are talking to you in a loud voice as if you are deaf, just because they think you do not understand what they are saying. So, the chapter "Racism and rice pudding" made me relive some of the unpleasant memories from my own experience.

Without giving too much of a plot, I thought the end of the book was a bit of a let-down, it was disappointingly rushed, as if the author has lost an interest in her own book.

Saying that, I am glad that I have joined the BritMums Book Club and read this book, I wouldn't have chosen it myself or picked up in the library, and would have missed a fascinating author.


P.S. I received this book as a member of BritMums Book Club.



  1. I found the chapter where the eldest daugther is served her pre-determined fate chilling (the rope in the Cauldron) too. It gave me a lot to think about. Great Review.

  2. I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story best too. You are right, she was definitely most comfortable writing about Kurdish and Turkish heritage and family history. A great book.

  3. Shafak is brilliant story teller, a real contemporary Sheherezada!