Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Honour - Elif Shafak

I sincerely thought that after Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul, there is not going to be much that Elif Shafak can surprise me by. I gave the benefit of the doubt to both novels and even though I wasn't disappointed at all, I have to say I wasn't out in the balcony screaming THIS IS FUCKING GENIUS either.

However, my ever loving aunt decided once again that I really need to read more of Shafak (honestly, I told her the books were good but I don't remember being enthusiastic to get even more of them) so she bought me yet another novel - Honour.

I was just in the middle of Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, which is not exactly the type of book you would use to fall asleep. It requires a great deal of concentration. As the author himself warns, "If you are reading this late at night tired of work, well stop". Well, I am always tired of work and it is always beyond the normal human concept of late that I manage to reach the haven of my bed, so I decided to stop reading it altogether and just postpone to another (hopefully calmer) time in the future. So, Elif Shafak came as a save rescue and without expecting too much but with a fare amount of excitement, I flipped the first page of Honour

And I flipped and flipped and flipped until it was almost 4 o'clock and I was contemplating doing an allnighter not to work, not to drink, and most certainly not to fornicate (a favorite word of mine!) but to read Shafak.

Honour is a novel about honour and shame. In the Turkish community even the most dishonorable men have honor and are bound to protect it and even the most honourable women have shame and are cursed to carry it. Even if it's not theirs. Honour follows the story of several generations of the Toprak family, from a small village in Turkey throught the sands of Abu Dhabi and to the skyscrappers of London. Shafak draws a scarily real story about how we tend to hurt the most the ones we love the most.

Esma, an independent and open-minded woman from Turkish origin but living in London begins with a rather startling statement: "My mother died twice". On her way to the prison to pick up her brother, Esma begins the fragmented story of her family. Recollections from various points-of-view and time periods slowly reveal the tragic destiny of the Toprac family. The two twins Pembe and Jamila (Pink and Beautiful) were born and raised in a Kurdish village. A disappointment to their mother (who wanted a boy after 6 girls) Pink and Beautiful grew up to be very different and took on separate paths. Pembe, the more adventurous one, married and moved to London with her husband Adem and their three children: Esma, Iskender and Yunus. Jamila adopted the role of the Virgin Midwife, dedicating her life to helping women give birth. However, the connection between the two never ceased to exist and when Jamila senses something is going terribly wrong with Pembe's life, she sets on a long journey to London, a journey that is going to prove fatal for both of them.

The clash between the Turkish traditions and the Western promiscuity is inevitable. Adem, the loving and honourable father soon falls for an exotic dancer (Bulgarian!) and leaves the family. The protection of the family honour is left with Iskender, Pembe's favorite. Ever since he has been a child, Iskender has been the Sultan in the home. Growing up in the violent 70s, when uprising against racial differences turns London into a battlefield, Iskender develops a violent and impatient nature. He treats his mother's behaviour according to Islam rules and his girlfriend's - according to Western. When Pembe gathers the courage to look for happiness elsewhere, Iskender is outraged and takes the protection of family honour to drastic ends.

In Honour Shafak tackles the everlasting issues of the Muslim woman's place in a man's world. Or rather, her lack of place. Shafak has been a favorite to open-minded individualist Turkish women and reading this novel you can scarcely wonder why. The author defends the woman's right to love and to pursue happiness but prominently shows that maybe the Turkish society hasn't fully warmed up to that idea. Men are being raised to value honour as the biggest virtue. Loosing it, a man is dead to society. Loosing it, a woman is dead. Period.

Honour provokes thoughts about revenge, retribution and forgiveness. It is a pleasantly surprising piece of literature I never expected from Shafak. Certainly her best novel from the ones I have read so far, Honour skilfully deviates from the trivial and sugar-coated writing i kind of expected from Elif Shafak. Highly recommended.