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Book Review: Honor by Elif Shafak

An honor killing that shatters and transforms the lives of Turkish immigrants in 1970’s London. Book review by Global Village Space.

Honor
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“There were many legends about these rocks and behind every legend a story of forbidden love.”
― Elif ShafakHonor

I had heard a lot of praise for Elif Shafak’s book, 40 Rules of Love. Many had recommended it. The novel seems to have been an instant success and loved by readers across the globe. The author’s reputation now precedes any work of writing by her. This is why I had high hopes when I got my hands on ‘Honor’ by Elif Shafak. And it did not disappoint.

The novel tells the story of Esma, a young Kurdish woman living in London while struggling to come to terms with a terrible crime her elder brother has committed.
The story is set in London in the 1970s, though it also traverses multiple generations. Some chapters take us back to the Euphrates River in the 1950s where Esma spends her childhood.

Towards the end, we are brought almost to the turn of the century. The plot revolves around Esma but that didn’t become apparent to me until I was halfway through the book since the story is told from the perspectives of all the main characters. And it’s important to point out that no character is uni-dimensional. Esma, her mother, her brother and other characters each view the world differently and have a life and a world of their own, so to speak.

Esma’s mother and her brother react in very different ways when they come face to face with some racist whites and that shapes their thought process in different ways as well.

The novel begins with Esma’s grandmother, who happens to have many daughters but desperately wishes for a son. It further develops into the stories of Esma’s mother, Pembe and her twin sister, Jamila. The significance of having a twin sister becomes clear almost towards the end of the story.

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Each character adds further depth and new dimensions to the story. There is near seamless transition between one chapter that tells the story in the 1950’s and the next chapter which may give an account of events in the 1970’s.

I say ‘near seamless’ because the story felt a bit disjointed at the beginning of the book. The first chapter begins in 1992, the second in1945 and the third in 1953. However, after going through the first few chapters, the pieces of the jigsaw began falling automatically into place. In the beginning, I didn’t really know which thread to pull first but the more I read, the more the plot unravelled itself. The author skillfully shifts the story to different eras and to different characters without losing a sense of continuity and flow.

The novel focusses on human emotion, drama, the complexities of love and most importantly, the culture of honor and shame. Several times while reading, I found myself having to stop and ponder over something a character, created by Elif Shafak, has said. For instance, one of the central characters learns through experience that the way a man loves his wife is a reflection of who he is. The truth of these words hits home once we are through the book. On another occasion, the author, without actually pointing it out or mentioning it, tells us that in an honor culture, only men have honor while women only have shame.

The story is set in London in the 1970s, though it also traverses multiple generations. Some chapters take us back to the Euphrates River in the 1950s where Esma spends her childhood.

Another skill worth admiring in the author is how the novel shifts from the micro to the macro, from the individual to the society, from the attitude of the characters to the culture that shapes these attitudes. The prevalence of patriarchal culture weighs down on the characters throughout the novel. The theme that it the male members who must protect the honor of the family while female must make sure they don’t bring shame and that bringing shame is worse than committing murder or suicide is brought home in every other chapter.

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Furthermore, the politics of the era, especially the 1970s, also intertwines with these overarching themes in the novel. Esma’s mother and her brother react in very different ways when they come face to face with some racist whites and that shapes their thought process in different ways as well.

Even though the theme is tragic and complex, the language is simple and at times delightful to read. Rumours spread faster than ink on a paper, the author tells us and I couldn’t help but feel I have heard these words before somewhere. Similarly, when Esma’s grandmother wants to have a son instead of a daughter, she remains as ‘silent as the graveyard by the hills’ where all her ancestors lay and where she too would be buried one day, until Allah explains to her why hasn’t she had sons yet.

When the author wants to explain how people in a remote Kurdish village view the world beyond the villages’ borders, she tells us that human beings were ordained to be sedentary, like trees and boulders. “Everything there had been and everything there ever would be was already present, here and now.”

The book is a bit less than 350 pages but the simplicity of the language makes for a short read. The ability to explain complex themes via characters one can’t help but like and relate to is why the author’s reputation precedes her work. ‘Honor’ by Elif Shafak is well worth your money.


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