HonorBy Elif ShafakViking, 2013 Bestselling novelist Elif Shafak, author of the hugely popular The Bastard of Istanbul, has a penchant for fearlessly investing even the worst of her characters with complex humanity, but surely readers approaching her latest book (boringly titled Honor in the U.S.) will wonder if it presents too great a challenge even for her humanizing abilities. The elaborate structure of Honor’s interlinked plots is built around so-called ‘honor-killing’ – the barbaric custom by which families in certain cultures decide that one of their number has disgraced them all and either coerce that one into suicide or else delegate their killing to another family member. The practice claims thousands of lives every year in the more backward parts of the Middle East – including Turkey, where Shafak’s novels are read everywhere. Several such killings happen in Honor, including one at the center of the book’s main story about two sisters, Pembe and Jamila, who are born in the mid-1940s in a small village on the border of Turkey. The sisters’ lives illustrate the two basic choices facing countless such young women in the hinterlands of the Middle East: stay and live out the rest of your life in the 8th century, or leave and live out the rest of your life as a stranger in a strange land. Jamila stays, Pembe marries a man from Istanbul and leaves, eventually settling in London – which she finds strange indeed:
It wasn’t things such as the traffic coming at her from the left or the drivers sitting on the opposite side of the car that startled her so much as the way Londoners carried themselves. The starchiness of old ladies, the brazenness of the youth, the freedom of the housewives, the kind of confidence she never had and never thought she would obtain. She would watch the women in their T-shirts with their nipples showing, their hair iridescent in the sun, and marvel at how they wore their femininity like a gown. Couples kissing on the streets, smoking, drinking, debating. Never had she seen people so keen to live their lives out in public.
Pembe has three children – Iskender, Esme, and Yunus; we get a good deal of our close narration from Esme, remembering her mother’s story, which quickly comes to resemble the lives of so many Middle Eastern women in its patterns of craven male violence:
No, my father Adem Toprak did not beat his wife or his children. And yet on that night, and on other nights in the ensuing years, he would easily lose his temper and turn the air blue with words that were full of pus and bile; he would smash objects against the walls, all the while hating the entire world for pushing him to the edge, where he feared the shadow of his father was waiting to tell him he might not, in the end, be that different from him.
The trials the family faces in London are an endless abrasion to Adem, prompting him to dream about moving them all to someplace sane – like Abu Dhabi:
Surely, the Arabs would not be like the Brits and Abu Dhabi would not be London. No rain coming down in buckets, no pork sausages wrapped in glazed bacon as if to double the sin, no pint-sized kitchens in moudly houses, no tomatoes without taste, no youngsters dyeing their hair purple and terrorizing the streets with their drunken madness. The British were always polite: they spate in your face so courteously that you expected them to hand you a handkerchief afterwards.
When the insanity of ‘honor killing’ finds its way into this volatile mixture, attentive readers won’t be surprised at the timing or the circumstances – Shafak so expertly shuttles the scenes of her narrative from the past to the present and back that she somehow manages, in the fashion of ancient Greek tragedy, to make her plot’s outcomes seem both surprising and inevitable. She brings us inside the thoughts of one of her main characters as he thinks the unthinkable, and although her prose is often lazy (clichés and idioms abound), her moral generosity is downright staggering. It’s also infectious. The wrongs in Honor are brutally plain, but the wrongdoers are clothed in such touchable flesh that readers will find themselves carried beyond easy revulsions – to places that are far less comfortable but far more rewarding. Shafak has once again produced a genuinely thought-provoking cultural discussion-starter, with a little warm fiction on the side.