One of my good friends from graduate school, Alev, is from Turkey, and I remember asking her about Turkish authors I should read, and she immediately mentioned Elif Shafak. I’ve had several of her books on my to-read pile over the last few years, but this was the first one I actually read and I’m sorry that I waited so long.
Honour is a complex multigenerational novel that begins in London in the 1990’s as Esma Toprak mentally prepares herself for the release of her brother, Iskender, from prison. Two decades before, Iskender killed their mother, Pembe, and now Esma is emotionally conflicted as she imagines his homecoming:
Then I’ll take out the sesame halva. We’ll sit together by the window, with porcelain cups and plates in our hands like genteel strangers, watching it rain on the violas in my back garden. He’ll compliment me on my cooking, saying how much he has missed sesame halva, though he’ll politely decline another serving. I’ll tell him I follow Mum’s recipe to the letter, but it never turns out as good as hers. That will shut him up. We’ll lock gazes, the silence heavy in the air. Then, he’ll excuse himself, saying that he feels tired and would like to rest, if that is all right. I’ll show him to his room and close the door, slowly.
I’ll leave him there. In a room in my house. Neither far away nor too close. I’ll keep him confined within those four walls, between the hate and the love, none of which I can help but feel, forever trapped in a box in my heart.
He is my brother. He, a murderer.
To understand this present situation, Elif Shafak goes back almost two generations to Turkey to explore the lives of the parents and grandparents of the Toprak children—from the birth of Pembe and her twin sister, Jamila, to the toxic relationship between the parents of Pembe’s husband, Adem. The story moves back and forth in time, coming back repeatedly to Iskender’s point of view as he waits for his prison sentence to wind down and contemplates the reasons behind his act of violence and his concern for the future.
It was hard for me to grapple with the honour (or honor) in the title—which has everything to do with purity and piety and confines women to the roles of virgin or faithful wife, no matter what the circumstances. However, Shafak does an excellent job of showing the damage this ideology does to all involved—both for women and men. As the Toprak family moves from Turkey to London and from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, the seeds of this particular tragedy are fertilized by many smaller acts of violence, betrayal and pain that come before.
That said, this novel felt strangely optimistic and suggests that things can change, even as it tears out your heart and stomps on it.