Viking, £12.99, 352pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Honour, By Elif Shafak
Friday 06 April 2012
Honour, a Turkish-Kurdish family saga set in London, takes Elif Shafak into new literary territory. Shafak is a prolific, controversial and critically acclaimed young Turkish novelist, columnist and academic whose previous novel, The Forty Rules of Love, has been long-listed for the 2012 IMPAC prize. She has been the victim of political harassment in Turkey: a 2006 case against her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, ensured her global attention as a political figure as well as a literary one.
Shafak had the dubious honour of being the first writer in Turkey to be indicted for ideas expressed in fiction. The current situation is still equally precarious for Turkish writers, with over 147 freedom of expression cases pending in the courts.
With Honour, her ninth novel, her fourth written in English and her first set in London, Shafak joins the growing canon of authors who chart the rich imagined routes of a nomadic city formed by global power-shifts, and the ebbs and flows of human traffic passing through London. She joins writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, Aamer Hussein, Andrea Levy, Hanan al-Shakyh and Leila Aboulela, who offer us fictional glimpses of London's Others.
Shafak is a protean writer, a shape-shifter. Her style, technique and voice change significantly from novel to novel and language to language, as she writes both in English and Turkish. The Saint of Incipient Insanities, her first novel in English, deployed a rich American Gothic voice, in contrast to The Forty Rules of Love and its more global, transatlantic style.
Shafak embraces the city in Honour, and writes in an exuberant, occasionally hyperbolic "Ow, can't you shut your bleedin' gob!" London-English. The novel follows three generations of the Turkish-Kurdish Toprak family from Istanbul and the Euphrates to London, and the codes of honour which bind and break them. This is an extraordinarily skilfully crafted and ambitious narrative, with Shakespearean twists and turns, omens and enigmas, prophecies and destinies fulfilled. It weaves time and place: from working-class Istanbul in 1954 to a small Kurdish village by the Euphrates in 1962, Hackney in 1977, and Abu Dhabi and Shrewsbury prison in the 1990s. We are introduced to three generations of the family including Naze, the mother of twins Pembe Kader (Pink Destiny) and Jamila Yeter (Enough Beauty). Adem loves the latter and marries the former, in the name of honour. Pembe and Adem's children are rebellious teenager Iskender, would-be writer and feminist Esma, and dreamy seven-year-old Yunus.
A whole host of minor characters appear, from zany Caribbean hairdresser Rita to Zeeshan the mystic; too many for much more than broad-brush characterisation. There are a few minor historical glitches in Shafak's portrait of 1970s subcultural life, but only picky Londoners of a certain age will notice.
Inconsistencies in characterisation are more troubling than those in historical research. Would Pembe, a conscientious mother, let her seven-year-old disappear for hours on end, find him unconscious on the doorstep late at night, yet continue to allow him the freedom of the streets and fail to spot a tattoo on her young son's body for several months? Does bath night really come round so rarely in the Toprak household?
Honour is lushly and memorably magic-realist rather than naturalistic. A child waits by a river for a passing stranger to name him because his mother believes he is damned; a young girl is given a bowl with a coiled rope in it and left to hang herself. Once the narrative enigmas are resolved, we see how the characters serve the greater whole: everything has a reason. The mapping and intertwining of destinies collectively, rather than any single consciousness, is what really engages Shafak in this novel. Crimes of the heart reverberate across the years, and the Topraks' notion of honour leads to tragedy for all.
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