- Elif Shafak
- Viking Adult
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Maria Kontak
- April 1, 2013
Inseparable Turkish Kurd twin sisters are at the heart of this family saga that blends magic, mystery and realism.
Elif Shafak’s latest novel takes the family drama-cum-mystery genre into hairy territory. The backbone of the story is ostensibly the fate of Turkish Kurd identical twin sisters, Jamila and Pembe (their names wonderfully rendered into English as Pink Destiny and Enough Beauty), who despite their pledge not to be separated, in fact, become separated. In the course of the novel, one marries, the other doesn’t, one remains in Turkey, the other doesn’t, one has a profession, the other doesn’t, and so on. By the end of this 352-page saga the sisters are reunited but not in any ordinary way, and so, magic blends with mystery and realism.
Pembe’s and Jamila’s fates are highlighted against a multi-generational family history replete with doubles and splits. In the generation preceding Pembe and Jamila in this family saga, opposing and repetitive leitmotifs emerge. For example, Naze, Pembe and Jamila’s mother, dutifully gives birth annually in the hope of finally having a son, while Pembe’s mother-in-law takes an independent if questionable stance to religion, custom and duty. The fathers and sons reverse the pattern repeating and intensifying problematic behaviors across generations. The father is a drunk. His son a gambler. His son a killer.
Pembe leaves the Kurdish village, sets up house first in Istanbul, then in East London and her family, her husband Adem and their three children — Alex (Iskender in Turkish), Esma, and Yunus — drive the plot. Pembe’s traditional marriage, starting from its curious courtship, is unfulfilling for both husband and wife. In London’s less rigorous social norms, each seeks an outlet, which nonetheless conforms to tradition. That is to say, the male has a much wider berth. Still, each pursues the love that is missing from their marriage — a timeless majnun (lover) beautifully evoked in Shafak’s lyrical passages.
Their three children also navigate, each in their own way, the tricky minefield between the Kurdish ways of their parents and grandparents and the ways of their English friends and peers. Alex, the oldest son born in Turkey, maintains the strongest tie to tradition but his actions, even at their most unspeakable and barbaric, are muddled. The younger son Yunus is untroubled by either past or tradition but he becomes mired in a segment of English society with its own challenges. The personal conflict that tears at the innards of their parents weaves a destructive path into inter-sibling relationships, and it falls to Esma, the only girl, to keep the family on track. In the manner of middle children, she fights towards a middle way that accommodates both old and new. It is Esma, who opens the novel with the riddle “My mother died twice,” who keeps the reader turning the pages.
The narrative flips backwards and forwards, one locale eclipses another. It is a lush and sensual novel that abounds in local color. A single chapter deftly switches from 1975 to 1992 then back again or moves to some third decade, from Kurdish village to Turkish city, from Turkey to London, and so on. At times, the non-linear structure injects a slightly daunting dynamism and often puzzling shifts in point of view. Esma’s “I” yields the floor to others in quick order, and there are many others ready to supply bits and pieces to the story.
Shafak’s cast of characters and the number and intensity of personal themes — betrayal, duty, loneliness, and, of course, family honor, are large. The themes sweep not just inter generationally across Pembe and Jamila’s family but across society at large, whether in Turkey or London. Individual segments of each society are placed under the microscope. In addition to Pembe’s society and that of her husband and children, there is Jamila’s society in Turkey. Prisoners, squatters, Zen masters and lap dancers, even the mythical Houdini appear in London, while smugglers and birthing mothers populate Kurdish villages, and gamblers and wayward spouses inhabit both.
Although Shafak’s work shares a certain cadence with contemporary fellow Turkish authors like Orhan Pamuk when considering the conflict between traditional Turkish and western values, Shafak’s brush stroke is broader. The fabric of her tale winds like Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar until the tantalizing displays and aromas yield to a slightly claustrophobic alley choked in endless pedestrian traffic.
Despite the breadth of subject matter and stylistic shifts, Shafak’s strong prose keeps the story together, interjected with lyricism, dotted with myth, and sprinkled with the dust from the hand of the djinni (spirits). Poetry, aphorisms, and passages from the Qu’ran divert the reader from grim and heavy reality, and although they provide no real answers to deep questions, they offer kind relief. It’s not all gender, race and trials of the immigrant for Shafak.
Among additional mood lifters of a highly sensual kind are discussions of food, spices, gemology, medicinal herbs, not quite as all encompassing, but lending a flavor of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. It is perhaps not accidental that Shafak chooses for Pembe’s love interest a cinema-loving chef, eager to share culinary secrets, and either sending this reader to the kitchen fridge or to the Google page of a film.
But these innocent diversions are short in duration and the novel stays firmly rooted in the story of the inseparable twins and as such the theme of individual as well as national identity, the latter amply discussed in Shafak’s second novel The Bastard of Istanbul. In Honor, without the theme of individual identity, even more so than national identity, the “double and split” leitmotifs of the opening line of the book would not have found their way, as they do, toward answering Esma’s riddle: “My mother died twice.” And that answer is worth the journey.
Maria Kontak holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature from the University of Michigan, has a career in international business and is active in the writing community. She has published short stories and is working on a novel.