Elif Shafak’s Honour is the story of three generations of a culturally split Turkish-Kurdish family that undergoes yet another cultural division when it migrates to London. The story starts when Naze, who had always wanted to have a boy, gives birth to twin girls whom she names Kader (Destiny) and Yeter (Enough). Her husband, thinking that the names are a challenge to fate, renames them Pembe and Jamila. However, the twins come to be associated with both names in the end and are called Pembe Kader (Pink Destiny) and Jamila Yeter (Enough Beauty).
Adem falls in love with Jamila but chooses to marry Pembe because, in his opinion, Jamila’s honour had been tainted. The union, as both of them later find out, fails to bring either of them any happiness. They move to London while Jamila chooses not to marry and starts helping women during the birthing process.
At its heart the story is about immigrant life that shelters and holds on to the values and traditions of the native place: “The native land remained immaculate, a Shangri-La, a potential shelter to return to, if not actually in life, at least in dreams”.
Shafak’s portrayal of diasporic life in London is similar to that of writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali who offer insights into the challenges of immigrants living in London. Pembe’s son Iskender describes their ideological dilemma this way: “We Topraks were only passers-by in this city — a half-Turkish, half-Kurdish family in the wrong end of London”.
Shafak weaves the narrative web with the ease of a master storyteller. Pembe, “a woman of untenable thoughts and unfounded fears”, treats her son Iskender as the greatest achievement of her life, probably because he was the son that her mother Naze could never have. Whereas always more ambitious and rebellious than her identical twin Jamila, “[Pembe] had turned superstitious abruptly, almost overnight: the night Iskender was born”. She is amazed that all three of her children are so different from each other: “While Iskender craved to control the world, and Esma to change it once and for all, Yunus wanted to comprehend it”.
When the novel opens Iskender is a man counting his days in a prison in London where he is incarcerated for the crime of murdering his mother. He was only 16 when he killed her in the name of family honour.
Through his story the author questions the cultural mindset that ignores a man’s extramarital affairs and betrayals yet doesn’t allow a woman to be with someone after her husband has abandoned her. It is a culture that treats young boys like kings while oppressing girls.
Some readers might find the theme of honour killing too unsubtle or feel that it has been written from a desire to cash in on the popular tendency to see honour killings as daily happenstance in Muslim communities. But Shafak speaks for young Turkish women. Her version of feminism is one that young women tend to associate with the most as it allows them the freedom to assert their identities without worrying too much about the equality scale between the two genders.
Shafak’s characters are dynamic and fluid, evolving as the story progresses — in a process of ‘becoming’ rather than remaining fixed in rigid identities. Their pasts are haunting characters, affecting and shaping their lives in London.
The world created by Shafak teems with spirituality and superstition at the same time. The dead have the uncanny ability to curse newborn infants: “Even long after Naze had passed away she would come back to haunt her daughters, some more than others”. Pembe asks a strange old woman to name her first born who, after naming him, makes a prophecy: “I am afraid your son will break you to pieces”. Fish and sea are important symbols for the Torpak family. Their youngest son Yunus is named after the prophet who was swallowed by a whale according to Islamic beliefs. There is a constant struggle between life and death and any attempt to surpass the boundary between the two is considered an affront to the Creator.
A pensive exploration of freedom, destiny and longing, Honour has, however, some parts that take a Coelho-like twist, the crying spiritualism of which is too much to digest. For instance, the story of the diamond that Jamila comes to own and her encounter with a thief who needs to be nursed back to life, comes across as forced. Some might argue that the apparent anti-realistic feel of such episodes is a deliberate effort on the part of the writer and supposed to be magical realism. But if you’re looking to read a good work of magical realism, Honour is not the book for you.
An exposition of the deepest shades of faith, love and compassion, Honour offers everything that you would expect from a good novel. Shafak builds up her narrative with small but measured strokes, expanding the story with an eye for detail and beauty. It’s a sad and tragic story but the eloquent prose and subtle narration make it an enjoyable read.
By Elif Shafak