December 20, 2012 by markstani
Honour by Elif Shafak
My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten, but I could never find the time or the will or the courage to write about it. That is, until recently. I don’t think I’ll ever become a real writer and that’s quite all right now. I’ve reached an age at which I’m more at peace with my limitations and failures. But I had to tell the story, even if only to one person. I had to send it into some corner of the universe where it could float freely, away from us. I owed it to Mum, this freedom. And I had to finish it this year. Before he was released from prison.
Honour is Elif Shafak’s eighth novel, and it shows. It is a tremendously accomplished piece of work, steering seamlessly through three generations of a Kurdish family, from a post-War village on the banks of the Euphrates river to seventies London simmering with racial disharmony, and beyond.
It tells the story of two identical twin sisters parted by an accident of fate: Pembe follows her husband Adem to a new life in London, while Jamila, her honour for ever tainted by her kidnapping during a local feud, seems destined to live out her days alone as a midwife to the women of smugglers and bandits.
The ‘Honour’ of the title, though, will mainly concern Pembe’s three children – Iskander, her eldest boy, whom she calls her ‘Sultan’, Esma, the novel’s primary narrator, and the youngest boy, Yunus, who was born in London.
This is their story: as much as it revolves around an honour killing that will rip the Toprak family apart for ever, it is also a persuasive portrait of their struggle to integrate, to reconcile their traditional customs and beliefs with those of their new land.
Each member of the family heads down a different path: Adem, numbed by his minimal employment prospects, seeks solace in western vices; Yunus finds companionship amongst a group of squatters; Esma, like her mother, is torn between two worlds, which is bad news when you have a brother (or son) like the aggressive Iskander, who is increasingly convinced by a nascent extremist stance.
‘Honour’ flows beautifully between eras, but its broad scope is such that at times it feels unnecessarily condensed: in particular, the family’s history back near the Euphrates is perhaps not explored as much as it could have been. Plus, the early revelation of the killing’s victim and perpetrator also serve to make a lot of this novel feel pretty unremarkable – until a stunning final section which, with the suddenness of a slap in the face, brings the novel’s various disparate strands together and forces a hasty reprise of so much that has gone before. It really is ingenious, and something you feel only a writer with the experience and plaudits of Shafak could hope to pull off. It turns a good book into a very good book, and Shafak, for me, into an author worthy of further exploration.