The build up to Elif Shafak‘s latest novel, Honour, has been tremendous. I first heard about it months ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. No doubt the hype is due in part to the subject of honor killings that stands at the center of this novel. Shafak herself is quite outspoken when it comes to feminist and political issues. I think that is why I was so surprised at the subtle manner in which Shafak deals with the topic in Honour. I was expecting a much more forceful indictment of honor killings and the role of a woman’s honor in relation to family status. Instead Shafak has provided the reader with a twisting and turning story that is truly plot driven while still casting honor killings in an unapologetic light.
That being said, there are still moments when the interwoven themes of shame, disgrace and honor are handled in a rather heavy handed way.
… ‘Honour was more than a word. It was also a name. You could call your child ‘Honour’, as long as it was a boy. Men had honour. Old men, middle-aged men, even schoolboys so young that they still smelled of their mothers’ milk. Women did not have honour. Instead, they had shame. And, as everyone knew, Shame would be a rather poor name to bear.
Honour is going to be gaining literary accolades this season. It has started already with Shafak’s inclusion on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (nee Orange Prize). However, I had difficulty getting into to it. Particularly in the beginning the writing seemed to take on an overly mythic tone. Either I got used to it, or it tamed itself as the novel progressed, but I did find it off putting. Shafak writes in both Turkish and English and I wondered if the earlier parts of the novel had been translated. I know I am going to be in the minority when I say that Honour was just alright. It definitely picks up, but there seemed to be a lot of back story from when the characters lived in Turkey that weighed the narrative down.
Who would like this book? I was immediately reminded of Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres when I started Honour. True, both are set in rural eastern Turkey, but it was actually the writing style that made me thing of Birds Without Wings. Since Birds Without Wings is widely accepted as a good novel that may not be a bad thing for most people. I, however, have attempted Birds Without Wings several times and I have never finished it. That very rarely happens to me. The plight of minorities in London in Honour reminded me quite a bit of Brick Lane by Monica Ali and I think a favorable comparison can be made of the two books.