Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

13616853Title: Honour
Author: Elif Shafak
Published: April 1st 2012
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 343
ISBN: 0670921157

‘My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten’.

And so begins the story of Esma a young Kurdish woman in London trying to come to terms with the terrible murder her brother has committed. Esma tells the story of her family stretching back three generations; back to her grandmother and the births of her mother and Aunt in a village on the edge of the Euphrates. Named Pembe and Jamila, meaning Pink and Beautiful rather than the names their mother wanted to call them, Destiny and Enough, the twin girls have very different futures ahead of them all of which will end in tragedy on a street in East London in 1978.

A powerful, brilliant and moving account of murder, love and family set in a Kurdish village, Istanbul and London.

What initially struck me most about this book is not the controversial topic it deals with, but rather that it’s very cleverly written. Almost right from the start you know what’s going to happen in the story, yet it doesn’t make the reading experience any less interesting. The book is about an honour killing; you know who did it, and you know who the victim is, but the author still manages to create a nice build up of tension and anticipation and we explore the background stories of the characters and their respective family histories.

The story focuses on a Turkish/Kurdish immigrant family living in London in the 1970s. The father, Adem Toprak, comes from a simple family in Istanbul and is still traumatised by his childhood because he had an abusive father, and a mother who committed suicide. His wife Pembe originally comes from a remote Kurdish village on the edge of the Euphrates, and she and her identical twin sister Jamila are the youngest in a family of eight children, all girls. Adem initially wanted to marry Jamila, but because she was already promised to someone else he eventually settled for her sister.

The Toprak family move to Hackney, and each of them have their own problems to deal with. Adem struggles with a gambling addiction and eventually leaves home. He remains absent for most of the story. Pembe is a shy woman, easily intimidated by the big scary place that is London, and she tries to hide away from it as much as she possibly can. Her eldest son Iskender, her pride and joy, is an arrogant and intimidating bully in a way that is so typical for a teenage boy. After his father leaves home he decides that this makes him head of the family, and he acts accordingly, telling his mother and sister what they can and can’t do. Middle child Esma is very bright, a good student, but very insecure about her identity and what she should be like and how she should behave. Due to her brother’s behaviour and her mother turning a blind eye, she is constantly reminded of how unfair life is and how much easier it would be if she’d been a boy. The youngest child, Yunus, is the only one born in London and he doesn’t seem to struggle with some kind of identity crisis, at least not in the same way as his older siblings. Because of all the family problems he more or less flies under the radar for quite some time, and he prefers to spend his time hanging around with squatters in a nearby house.

The story switches narrative with each chapter, exploring both parents’ pasts in Istanbul and the Kurdish village respectively, as well as family life in the 1970s and the children’s lives in the 1990s, and the story is told from shifting viewpoints. Even though having multiple narrators can be confusing, I think it was really well done in this book and in my view it really helped to ensure that the whole family saga was told and nothing was left out. Most of the chapters that are set at a later date are told from Esma’s point of view, so I suppose you could consider her the overarching narrator (is there even such a thing?), which helps to keep the story clear and coherent.

‘My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten’.

It is quite clever how Shafak manages to capture the reader’s attention for well over 300 pages, considering that we know from the start that Iskender has killed his mother in a so called “honour killing”. You wonder how a story can remain interesting when the whole question of “who did it?” has been taken out of the equation. The fact is that you don’t know when or exactly how it’s going to happen, so that helps to build up the tension quite nicely because you know that it can happen at any moment during the story. And also, as a reader, you don’t know the exact motivation for the murder, which is something you find out as the story progresses.

There is a massive plot twist at the end which had me gasping in shock, but of course I won’t tell you what it is because that would spoil the surprise. All I can say is that it’s very clever, and once again I have to applaud Ms. Shafak for her inventiveness.

This story explores so many different aspects of life, so in my view it should appeal to a lot of readers. It deals with clashing cultures and struggling immigrants learning to cope with their new life, the generation gap between parents and their children, love, faith, family, and the struggles of life in general.

Elif Shafak is one of those authors whose books I buy without checking what the books is about first, because I just know they’re going to be good. And once again she did not disappoint.

Would I recommend this book to others? Definitely!

My rating: heartheartheartheart


7 thoughts on “Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

  1. I don’t think I’ve heard of this book before, but it sounds really interesting. I actually haven’t read any fiction pertaining to Turkey and Kurdish people so I’d definitely like to give this one a shot. I’m glad that the alternative perspectives were well done. I always find it confusing when they aren’t properly done since it becomes difficult to keep track of all the characters and what’s going on. Great review Phillipa!

  2. Nice review. I have never considered Middle eastern fiction before (or maybe it’s just because I haven’t seen much of them in bookstores over here) but I really should read some. Which are your favourites? Is there any you would recommend is a must-read?

    1. Thanks! I really love Middle Eastern fiction, but I think you may have guessed that already 🙂 A few that I can definitely recommend are The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoe Ferraris, The Septembers of Shiraz by Daliah Sofer, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk and The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White. These are a few of my favourites, and there are more listed on my Goodreads account 🙂

  3. Like you, I read her books as soon as they come out, I loved The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul and I though Honour was a brilliantly constructed book, just a bit sad that the UK cover went with a stereotype, which definitely put a number of readers off.

    I just visited Istanbul so having a bit of Turkish literature phase, which is great since previously I had only ever read Pamuk and Shafak. I just finished The Dervish as well, which was great.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I just adore her style of writing, her books are just so different from any other author I’ve ever read. But I agree with you on the book cover, I’m not very fond of the UK cover either.

      I’m dying to visit Istanbul, so I have to admit that I’m a bit jealous of you. Great to hear that you’ve read The Dervish as well, that’s another book I really liked 🙂

  4. Pingback: My excitement knows no bounds | A Thousand and One Books

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