Elif Shafak’s newest book, a multigenerational saga spanning half a century, explores the concept of honor and cultural expectations placed on women. Jamila and Pembe are somewhat estranged twins growing up in a Kurdish village. Marriage will tear them apart in adulthood; Pembe marries Adem Toprak and moves away to London, while her sister stays behind in Turkey and lives a solitary existence. Pembe is lonely in her own right; not only is she a Muslim immigrant in a strange country, but she married to a man who was completely wrong for her. The two wanted to live in London to give their three children a better future, but Adem soon abandons them in favor of his costly vices.
Their eldest son, Iskender has a hard time coping with his father’s abandonment. He had been raised as the beloved eldest son, and the lack of guidance from his father, coupled with religious fundamentalist ideas from his uncle, turn him into a ticking time bomb. Actually, readers first meet him when he’s in jail, serving time for murdering his mother in a notorious honor killing that made London headlines at the time. He’s close to finishing his sentence, and though he’s grown remorseful over what he’s done, his younger brother and sister are still struggling to forgive him.
Honor has multiple narrators that rotate with each new chapter. In addition to learning Iskender’s motives for killing his mother, the saddest part of this family’s demise lies in its history. Pembe, who resigned herself to her son’s punishments days before he killed her, was not the only woman in her family who suffered for allegedly bringing shame upon her family. Shafak explores these concepts of shame and family honor in interesting ways; for every perceived indiscretion made by women, there’s a male relative doing the same or worse. Of course, it’s the women and girls who suffer the most.
Yet the book is not without its flaws. Jamila, Pembe’s twin, has her own significant role in the story even though she still lives in Turkey. She has a few characteristics that I find a little too convenient to the plot, though I won’t go into detail so as not to give anything away. I also thought the ending was extremely questionable. That said, I really enjoyed the rest of the book (as much as one can “enjoy” a depressing story). It’s a fairly quick read that instantly sucks you in. I think Khaled Hosseini fans — and I say this as a Hosseini fangirl — would find similar satisfaction with Elif Shafak.
Honor was first published in 2011 and was published by Viking on March 7, 2013. The book was nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and longlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction.