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 Guardian. The 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
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.)