Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2013

Honour, by Elif Shafak, translated by Omca A. Korugan


Honour (Penguin)Honour by Elif Shafak, (also published as Iskander), was long-listed for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize), and was also nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Prize, but it didn’t make it onto either shortlist.  I think I know why: after a strong beginning, it gets a bit bogged down in a plot that becomes increasingly silly, culminating in a resolution that is not credible at all.

There’s definitely a place for fiction that deals with the issue of so-called ‘Honour Killing’.  It is apparently widespread in India and Pakistan, but there have been only isolated cases here in Australia.  Shafak’s novel addresses the issue of immigrant women venturing into greater independence than was traditional in the country of origin, while the men of the family retain the values of the old country.

But the way the book is constructed, zigzagging backwards and forwards in time and between a village in Turkey and the suburbs of London, is a bit of a jumble.  There are plenty of examples of books that are constructed like this one, but Honour doesn’t cohere as it should, perhaps because there are so many characters across the generations, and perhaps because some of them are only there to serve the daft conclusion.  Yunus’s not-very-convincing attraction to the punk Tobiko is necessary only to provide the squat as an alternative setting for the ending; and Alex/Iskander’s cellmate Zeeshan is necessary only as a catalyst for Alex/Iskander’s not-very-convincing remorse.

More importantly, the book doesn’t actually tackle the moral issue underlying the plot.  By muddying  the waters in ways I can’t reveal without spoilers, Shafak has failed to test the notion that male shame justifies killing women who don’t obey restrictive cultural norms.  Nor does it address the issue that immigrants have an obligation to live by the cultural norms and laws of the host society.  A multicultural society is tolerant of all kinds of religious and cultural differences but there are absolutes: in Australia, for example, female circumcision is illegal, polygamy is illegal, domestic abuse of any kind is illegal and killing anyone for any reason is illegal.  These are not just legal matters, they are longstanding cultural norms in our society, as they are in England. It’s not a spoiler to admit that Alex/Iskander is convicted of murder, but he gets off very lightly, both legally and socially because as we know from chapter one, his family forgives him.

The writing is rather ordinary and it’s over-plotted.  Overall, this novel is a disappointment.  As bestsellers so often are …

If you want to read an enthusiastic review, try The GuardianThe Telegraph is a little more circumspect, and there’s an article about Shafak at The Independent which hints at the interviewer’s ambivalence .

Stu at Winston’s Dad liked the style of writing but found that it ‘ felt like a great trilogy of three generations stuck into one book’.

Author: Elif Shafak
Title: Honour (also published as Iskender)
Translated by Omca A. Korugan (This isn’t credited on this edition, but it is in other editions, and I assume that translations wouldn’t have been necessary if it had been written in English).
Publisher: Penguin, 2013
ISBN: 9780670921116
Source:  Kingston Library.  (I actually bought a Kindle edition, but I hate reading on a Kindle so much, I was very pleased to find a print edition to read instead.)

Availability

Fishpond: Honour


Responses

  1. Interesting review.. I like it you were straightforward with your review. this novel is in my TBR for a while now. I’d rather take it off.

  2. I’ve read nothing but rave reviews of this book, so it’s interesting to hear a different perspective. Nonetheless, I’m hoping to get around to reading it soon.

    I really like the cover art you have posted. I hadn’t seen that cover before, but I like it better than the others that I’ve seen for the book.

  3. ***ONE SMALL SPOILER BELOW***

    Hi Lisa -

    Looks like we felt the same way about this one. The plotting was way too contrived. And I found the ending almost schizophrenic – as if the author couldn’t reconcile herself to where the story was taking her and where she wanted to take it. Shafak kept changing her mind. And the eventual compromise she settles on is just ridiculous.

    I thought the writing was really lovely, but I don’t see how it alone can account for all the rave reviews I’ve seen.

    We seem to differ only in that I found Iskender to be the most plausible character of the novel. At the story’s beginning he is an indulged, pampered, conceited idiot – with all the cockiness of youth, combined with a belief in his own superiority over women which is enforced at every juncture of the story by the women in his life. I didn’t find it hard to believe that he would mature over time and come to, not only regret but, attempt to take his own life over what he had done. To that end, even the character of Zeeshan worked for me.

    Part of me wonders if the author ended it how did did because she, too, realized Iskender was getting off too easy. That final “plot twist” felt rather sloppy to me.

    Thanks for another thoughtful review.

  4. I find it fascinating that so many reviewers find this book satisfactory, given as you say, that the plotting is so contrived. I wonder if it’s because it’s ‘exotic’ and readers want to enjoy being shocked and disapproving about the crime, and that over-rides other expectations.

  5. I believe in the US it is spelled ‘Honor’ but apparently in most of the rest of the world it is ‘Honour’.

    • *chuckle* You will never find American spelling here at ANZ LitLovers!

  6. I m sure I said about this when I reviewed I felt it would worked better as three books as it was to dense at times and would worked as three books thus ease numerous plot lines and clearing it up a bit ,all the best stu

    • Yes, I think you are right, Stu it felt as if there was too much plot struggling for space. Maybe a publisher’s deadline behind that?


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