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The sinner, the believer, and the confused

Updated December 18, 2016

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PERI is slowly getting drunk at a dinner party in Istanbul. The courses are immaculate, the wine superb, the discourse a slice of high Turkish society. There’s a coffee stain across her purple silk dress and a bled-through bandage hastily applied to cover a deep gash in her right palm.

If a woman in her 40s has to run barefoot on the streets of Istanbul in pursuit of a beggar running away with her faux Hermès bag, and nearly get raped and killed in the process, perhaps some fortification is in order — but for Peri this incident is seminal, particularly when a forgotten Polaroid photo falls out of her bag during the altercation. “How bizarre,” she thinks, “that the past came flooding in at the very moment disorder breached the banks of the present,” ushering in “random memories, repressed anxieties, untold secrets, and guilt, plenty of guilt.”

So begins Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s latest offering. Three Daughters of Eve is a masterclass in indecisiveness. From Turkey’s uneasy tug of war between secularism and Islam, to the main character’s fixation with the middle ground, Shafak skilfully explores the inability to pick a side and its consequences. The book takes on big questions and renders them to us through the eyes of a precocious child, then a hard-working student at the University of Oxford, and the mother and wife she grows up to be. Alternating between the two voices, Peri traces her life, a new episode unfolding with the serving of every course.


####Over a meal shared with unnamed associates, a middle-aged woman finds reason to revisit her life and times, exposing in the process the rifts that threaten Turkish society

The protagonist, we learn, is wealthy and a reluctant member of the elite society that invites a “fine wife, a fine mother, a fine housewife, a fine citizen, a fine modern Muslim,” like herself with open arms. But before this identity was “wished upon her,” she had questions. Questions about a religion that her rigidly Kemalist father found no patience for; a religion that became an obsession for her devout mother; a religion that landed one of her brothers in a torture cell for years. Questions she tries to answer for herself. She makes uncomfortable inquiries of her mother. She tries to understand why alcohol is forbidden by Islam by having her first sip with her adulating father. She maintains a “God-journal” to record her thoughts on the subject, writing directly to Him, sometimes seeking explanation, other times repenting for the sins of her father.

We follow this line of questioning all the way to Oxford where Peri arrives on a scholarship to study politics, philosophy and economics. It is here that we meet the figures in the Polaroid that triggered that cataclysm of emotion in her. Mona is a hijab-clad feminist, fervently and unapologetically Muslim; Shirin is fiercely confident, spoilt, as radical about her non-belief as her contempt for believers. Together, they form the Three Daughters of Eve — “the three of us: the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused,” thinks Peri.

Shirin introduces Peri to ‘God’, a seminar offered at Oxford that she guarantees will change her life. “You wouldn’t have recognised me a year ago,” Shirin tells Peri, having been “taught” to “look within” by “walking legend” Professor Azur. Thus enters the Oxford teacher who is described as somewhat transcendent himself. We find him on the cover of Time magazine, as part of a debate with a BBC journalist, in class, and constantly on Peri’s mind. He is anarchic, a genius and instantly attractive. In him, Peri at long last finds someone who actively discourages what he calls the “Malady of Certainty”. With him, she does not have to decide how she feels about faith.

Naming the character Azur seems like a deliberate choice on Shafak’s part. Azure is the blue associated with a vast and open sky, to which our eyes are often directed when searching for God, whether in prayer or for help. In kind, Peri looks to him to unravel religion. “He could see through her like no one else could,” and for that she falls in love with him.

What first hints at a trite student crush on a dashing professor culminates in a life-changing scandal that rips apart lives. As we sprint back and forth between Oxford in the 2000s and present-day Istanbul, Shafak patiently teases her reader, slowly unwrapping the facts that overturn all expectations.

During the course of one meal, Peri lives out an entire lifetime. The two timelines that the novel is structured on are not to scale and this works most expertly. The pace of the story alternates between a languid dinner and young adulthood’s key moments, and what is mismatched in pace is cemented in the various connections between the past and the present. Shafak does not opt for the obvious story and knits its dynamics into a compact plot that holds its own despite being centred on complex themes. Peri may be a changed woman now, but the link to her past life remains, remnants of which are excavated during the events of the day. While the bulk of the novel deals with an indecisive Peri, our introduction to her includes one reckless choice, that is, to chase after two beggar children in a busy Istanbul traffic jam. She swears out loud for the first time in years. She runs. The risk of physical harm notwithstanding, the incident changes her because she finally accepts that she is unable to let go of the past. The relationship between the Peri of the past, and the Peri of now, strings together seamlessly.

The wisdom of making a choice is not explicitly stated, nor consistently celebrated. At another juncture, Peri makes another choice, with life-changing consequences for all parties involved. But Shafak’s insight shines through when the narrative she spins never takes a side. The author maintains admiration and disdain in equal measure for the theists and atheists. She is as understanding of the inability to make a choice as she is of the consuming need to make one. Shafak is never judgemental of her characters and as a result neither are we. What she does take a swipe at, however, is the Turkish bourgeois. Through Peri’s eyes we see a society obsessed with designer bags, wealth, marketing strategies, obedient wives and the East-West divide.

Shafak’s description never loses the humour in the seriousness of her criticism. The characters peppering the dinner table are of so little consequence to Peri (and so utterly typical), that the author does not even name them, referring to them only as “the CEO,” “the PR woman,” “the plastic surgeon” and “the businessman’s wife”. They all agree that “Istanbul corrupts our souls” but never lose a chance to enjoy the privilege it accords them. “Women stared. They scanned, scrutinised and searched, hunting for the flaws in the other women, both manifest and camouflaged,” Peri tells us.

During the dinner party, the nameless businessman offers a blanket solution to Turkey’s problems, lamenting that if “only capitalism could run its course without intervention, it’d win over even the most resolute minds.” In a brilliant moment of irony, he promptly opens a box of cigars with Fidel Castro’s face emblazoned on it.

But what the dinner achieves is giving a voice to Turkey’s inner frustration with its identity and existentialist crisis, so pertinent to the country’s present-day seismic cultural shifts. In a haunting description of the torture of Peri’s brother in the 1980s, the reader shudders to think how many were meted out the same treatment following the crackdown on those perceived as having engineered the recent coup attempt. The dilemma of the Muslim world is on full display, through the micro (case in point being Peri’s family, Mona’s resolute faith and Shirin’s blatant disregard) and the macro (best illustrated when Shafak describes Turkey’s attempted entry into Europe as “only to find the opening was so narrow that, no matter how much the rest of its body wriggled and squirmed, it could not squeeze itself in. Nor did it help that Europe, in the meantime, was pushing the door shut”).

What Shafak is offering with Three Daughters of Eve is a mirror. To the Turkey that straddles two seemingly incompatible worlds. To the modern Muslim (whatever that may constitute). To the dismissive secularist. To those who question their received wisdoms, and especially to those who do not.

At Oxford, Professor Azur tells his students to bring food to his seminar to share with the rest of the class because “it is hard to feel hostile towards someone you share bread with”. Perhaps this is why, the world over, we continue to broach the most controversial topics at the most elaborate of dinner parties.

The reviewer is a journalist.

Three Daughters of Eve
(NOVEL)
By Elif Shafak
Viking, US
ISBN: 978-0241288030
384pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 18th, 2016