What a shame

This is my review of Honour by Elif Shafak.

Elif Shafak is a born storyteller, who knows how to hook the reader in a first chapter which ends, "He is my brother. He, a murderer". Although appearing to give so much away early on must detract from some of the dramatic power of later events – you could also argue this gives you the thrill of anticipation – a few red herrings and twists are left to the end.

I do not mind that the story of Turkish Adem Toprak, damaged sins-of-the-father style, and his beautiful Kurdish wife, Pemba Kader, or "Pink Destiny", flits between multiple viewpoints over five decades, but accept that this may confuse some readers. The author often seems to digress, caught up in her own fertile imagination, but most characters and incidents have some bearing on the complex plot which proves to have been carefully thought through. For instance, the forbidden lover Elias, a man of great tolerance, moderation and adaptability, symbolises the ability to survive in any culture since he does not belong to a particular one.

The scenes in Kurdish villages near the Euphrates are too unfamiliar for me to assess their authenticity, but I was convinced by the portrayal of a community held together by superstition and tradition which also have the power to destroy those who do not conform. The folktale aspect which Shafak likes to employ, a world of ghosts, spells, binding customs, unbending beliefs and unlikely coincidences is easier to accept in rural Turkey.

The culture shock of the Toprak family's move to London is well drawn, although too many of the sub-plots struck me as unrealistic with weakly developed or stereotyped characters: Roxana in the Chinese gambling den, Iskender's English girlfriend Katie, Yunus's escapades with the squatters – it seems implausible he is only seven, but I suppose at a more realistic ten plus he might be too old to share a room with his sister Esma.

With fewer characters and incidents to distract the reader, there might have been the space to develop the core of the book: the nature of honour in different societies and its implications, particularly for women in intensely male-dominated communities.

The author does not shrink from scenes of great cruelty, nor from the tragedy of misunderstandings and lack of communication, yet the story is saved from harrowing bleakness by her humour and warmth – which occasionally becomes a little too cloying for my taste. The soft centre irked me, as this potentially powerful book winds to a somewhat subdued anticlimax. Some passages are so insightful – for instance, the casual way British people say, "It's a shame" – that I wished the author had spent a little time editing weaker patches – continuity errors, cringe-making dialogue, etcetera – to make this a great piece of literature (like "Life and Fate" or "A Fine Balance") as well as a "good read".

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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