Honour by Elif Shafak

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2013


The dedication at the beginning of this book gave me pause for thought; it is for those that see and those that hear – the witnesses to acts of domestic violence. Knowing what to do in such situations, arguments overheard, suspicions, whispers, is incredibly difficult. Honour doesn’t have any neat answers but it does prompt many ideas to think about and discuss.

It begins with an ordinary and extraordinary day in the life of Esma. The year is 1992, and Esma is doing what many other parents routinely do, organising the kids and ferrying them to a birthday party. As she goes about her everyday tasks her mind is elsewhere. Today is the day she will meet her brother again, when she collects him from prison. It quickly becomes apparent that her brother Iskender stabbed their mother, as a matter of family honour. The book pieces together the story of the lives of Esma and her siblings, their parents and grandparents, to show how such a shocking act of violence came to be perpetrated.

Honour is a beautifully written book, and one that caught my imagination instantly. The story is intriguing, and the way it moves between different times and places is captivating. I found the earliest parts of the story, from 1945 to the 1950s, the most interesting, with their depictions of motherhood and childbirth. Esma’s grandmother Naze is introduced to us as she gives birth to her seventh and eight daughters. The poor woman is in a state of agony and despair as she desperately tries to bring a son into the world. She is so distressed by her inability to fulfil what she considers her greatest role that she stops speaking for forty days and forty nights. She finally relents, only to name her twin daughters Destiny and Enough. Her husband softens this affront to god with the alternative names Pembe and Jamila (Pink and Beautiful).

We learn more about the young lives of Pembe and Jamila. As children they are inseparable, but as they grow up they lead very different lives. Pembe moves first to Istanbul, then London, married with a growing family. Jamila stays in the village of her birth, building a reputation as a skilled midwife. Pembe’s first child is a son, Iskender, her sultan. Their relationship is told through some interesting mother and son moments. So too is the relationship between Pembe’s husband Adem with his own mother. The dissection of family structure and interaction is so finely done, it is a joy to read even when things get very tough.

Although it is very well written throughout, I did enjoy the first half more than the second. It lost me a little somewhere in the middle, and some of the bits set in the 1970s were less interesting to me. It was a bit difficult at times to relate the Pembe and Iskender from before the move to England with after, and of all the characters Esma was the one I understood the least by the end. Iskender’s battle with himself is very interesting, as is how mixed-up culturally he becomes. He seems to be torn between two different cultures and doesn’t know what it is he wants for himself. His letters written in prison punctuate the narrative and give a different perspective.

Overall I think Honour is an excellent book, very thought-provoking, and it is one I’m glad I read. If it hadn’t been on the Women’s Prize longlist I don’t think I would have picked up on it.

I borrowed Honour from my local library, where it was sitting on the shelf just waiting for me!

2 thoughts on “Honour by Elif Shafak”

  1. I got Honour from Brit Mums' book club and have just reviewed it (hadn't ever done a book review before).

    You are right to mention the twins' names. That is such a significant part of the book. I think no matter how long my review was I would always omit something. Ah well.

    Anyway, I find it incredibly interesting that you didn't enjoy 1970s London, as that was probably my favourite bit, as I was born early 70s and am a Londoner.

    What I loved the most though were all the spiritual bits.

    Liska xx


  2. I don't know why I didn't love the 70s bits so much, as I was born early that decade too. Maybe it just didn't have the same impact as the earlier parts did for me.

    I'm going to go & read your review now…


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