Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2021

Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak


Elif Shafak is a Turkish author who also lives in Britain.  Her novels have been nominated for the Booker, the IMPAC, the Man Asian and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  She writes in both Turkish and English, and since no translator is credited in the edition I read, I assume that Three Daughters of Eve was written in English.

Although it was nominated for several prizes, I was disappointed by Honour (2013), a novel about so-called ‘honour killings’ but Three Daughters of Eve is better constructed and more plausible.  The settings — Istanbul and Oxford — are superbly realised, contrasting the chaotic energy of Turkey’s largest city and financial centre with the static charm of British academia’s historic heart. These settings frame a novel of contrasts, tugging at the intellect and emotions of its central character, Peri.

Peri grows up in a family rent by spiritual conflict.  Her father is a belligerent atheist while her mother is a pious Muslim. They argue constantly, sniping at each other at every possible opportunity.  Peri, whose brothers embody these conflicts, witnesses the fallout from political repression and of extreme religiosity, and longs for a middle ground, developing a naïve belief that she might be the one to bring harmony into this divided home. Though it’s a financial struggle for her family, her chance comes, she thinks, when she takes up a place at Oxford and encounters a charismatic professor whose course explores issues surrounding God.  Not the least of these is, of course, the problem of reconciling a benevolent omnipotent God with the evils of the world.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Professor Azar has a God complex.  He’s not just interested in sectarian conflict, he likes to generate it, and has deliberately chosen his students to represent different attitudes towards religion and faith.  He manipulates their activities so that those holding extreme positions have to work together, and some of the other academic staff are dubious about the psychological distress he has been known to cause.  He goes so far as to engineer Peri into joining a share house with the radical Shirin and the pious Mona, reproducing the tension and conflict from Peri’s home in Turkey as the women argue passionately about identity, Islam, feminism and modernity.

The structure of the novel hints at some dramatic conflict that impacted on these women and their professor.  Three Daughters of Eve begins with middle-aged Peri with her teenage daughter Deniz on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul.  The traffic and her tiresome daughter combine to transform Peri from a respectable woman who represses her emotions into an Amazon who takes off after a handbag thief but almost gets raped in the back streets.  With a bandaged hand and torn dress, she finally arrives at the dinner party but refuses to conform to the expectations of the guests that she tidy herself up.  The progress of this dinner party is woven through the novel, enabling Shafak to comment on male entitlement and women’s rights, the gulf between rich and poor in modern Turkey, the secular-Islamist divide, and the tension between Turkish identity and Europeanising influences such as the movement for democracy and acceptance into the EU.  But for Peri, the photo that fell from her bag brings back memories of her time at Oxford and the people who were so important in her life.

Memory and forgetting are important motifs in the novel.  At the dinner party, the physics professor raises the spectre of Turkey becoming fundamentalist like Iran.

Peri said, ‘There’s that danger.  But Iran is a society of memory and tradition.  We Turks are good at amnesia.’

‘Which do you think is preferable?’ asked Darren beside her. ‘Remembering or forgetting?

‘They both have their drawbacks,’ Peri replied without hesitation. ‘But I’d rather forget.  The past is a burden.  What’s the use of remembering when we can’t change anything?’ (p.285)

One of the other dinner-party guests, Azur, agrees, joking that he’d rather not have a memory and can’t wait to have Alzheimer’s.  But just a few pages later, after TV reports of a terrorist event and the death of a teacher has shaken the party mood,  Peri’s husband Adnan muses on the transience of memory:

‘It’s not only terrorism or the horror of it,’ Adnan said. ‘It’s how easily we get used to such news.  Tomorrow this time few people will be talking about the teacher.  In a week, he’ll be forgotten.’ (p.304)

When is it too soon to forget?

Shafak’s allusion to Turkish ‘amnesia’ could refer to many things, but the obvious one is the Armenian Genocide, whose remembrance is proscribed in Turkey.  Like the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, she was prosecuted (but not convicted) of “insulting Turkishness” in her second novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, (long-listed for the Orange Prize)  So it’s interesting to see here in this dialogue that Peri thinks there’s no value in remembering.  Perhaps the conflicts between her parents, siblings and housemates just makes her yearn for peace?

In reality, of course, none of us really has much of a choice between memory and forgetting, it just happens whether we intend it to or not.  As we know from Andrea Goldsmith’s wonderful book The Memory Trap  societies do choose, by some kind of consensus, to memorialise some events and to ignore others.  The media, as we see in Jon Mcgregor’s Reservoir 13, has a role to play in keeping memories of events in the public eye.  As individuals, we keep photo albums, scrapbooks and memorabilia, (or their digital equivalents).  But there are always events in our own lives that we forget, and others that we remember, and there are complex reasons for this.

There’s a razor-sharp moment in this novel, when Professor Azur asks his class what they would want God to say if he were actually present.  The responses vary, but are mostly about love in some way.  But Peri says that what she’d like is for him to apologise, for all the injustice in the world.

Amen to that!

Other reviews: Ron Charles at the Washington Post; Claire McAlpine at Word by Word,  and at Publisher’s Weekly 

Author: Elif Shafak
Title: Three Daughters of Eve
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN: 9780241288047, pbk., 367 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Eltham Bookshop, $32.99


Responses

  1. By sheer coincidence, I pulled my copy of this novel from the shelf a couple of months ago, intending to make it my first read of Shafak’s work. I was, however, in one of those “iffy,” hard to please moods, the first few pages didn’t grab me and I put it aside. A few week later I went on to read Shafak’s better known 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World, which I loved, so I guess there’s hope for me yet as far as this writer is concerned.
    Although I obviously can’t speak to Three Daughters directly, from your review I see several parallels to the book I did read. Although she tells a good story and creates some memorable characters (at least in 10 Minutes, the book I read) I think Sharak is primarily a novelist of ideas. As much as I became involved with her characters and their (to me) exotic setting, I always found myself thinking (in a good way) about the difficulties faced by “outliers” (women, the transgendered, immigrants and the physically different) in navigating life in a society rooted in the Islamic past, refusing to acknowled a historic genocide (Shafak’s reference to it in 10 minutes was easy to miss, but there) and torn by its response to the more secular contemporary western model. It sounds like Three Daughters was more explicitly concerned with the role of historical memory and of religion in society than feminism as such but still — ideas, ideas! I find this aspect of Shafak’s work very interesting and I definitely plan on giving Three Daughters another go!

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    • I think you are absolutely right, and in this respect her work is like Orhan Pamuk’s and the way he deals with Turkey’s problem with religion and secular modernity, it’s just she has a feminist slant as well. There’s always the struggle to make choices that we don’t have to negotiate or even think about: to cover, or not to cover, is a political choice; for men, it’s wearing a tie, or not wearing a tie, and the choices they make are a statement about what kind of Turkey they support. It seems to be a struggle for the nation’s soul, but under Erdogan, the religious conservatives seem to have the upper hand.

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      • I still haven’t read anything by Pamuk (in fact, this is really the first year I’ve read very much at all from non-western, anglophone writers). I really have to get him sooner rather than later . . .

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        • I find him very interesting but I get more out of reading him if I do a bit of research — not too much — anyone who knows anything about Turkish history and politics probably wouldn’t need to, but I’ve never been there and have lost touch with the Turkish community I used to teach in.
          I’ve reviewed these ones https://anzlitlovers.com/category/writers-editors-aust-nz-in-capitals/pamuk-orhan/ but haven’t reviewed the first one I read which was Snow.

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  2. The only book I’ve read by her is 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World which I loved for the depiction of the main character but more especially because Shafak brought Turkey to life – the novel was a feast for the senses. It sounds like some of that is evident in this novel too.

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    • Yes, I think I’m going to seek that one out. But I have The Forty Rules of Love on the TBR so I should read that first…

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  3. Three Daughters of Eve was the first book I read by Elif Shafak, and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more by the author. Then I read The Forty Rules of Love (equally enjoyed) and next will probably be Honour, a book I already have at home. My personal opinion is that her books are not super captivating from an adrenaline view, but they have a thought-provoking flavour that still keeps you reading the story ’till the end. And I love her passion for protecting women’s rights!

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    • Hello Georgiana, I agree entirely. Not page turners, and not ‘unputdownable’ but absorbing to read and significant in their intent. And I love the sly comments where her female characters are cutting the men down to size.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What an eye catching cover!

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    • It’s the colours….I bet they symbolise something, but I can’t guess what. (Not the colours of their flag which is red and white…)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My book club was keen to read something by Elif Shafak, but someone made the terrible decision to pick her essay How to Stay Sane in a World of Division which was extremely disappointing. Fortunately our library has Dutch translations of her fiction, so I now have The Flea Palace lined up and discovered The Bastard of Istanbul on their sale shelf, so I’m looking forward to reading the former, hopefully this month.

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    • I’ve never found non-fiction to be a good choice for a book club. It’s too limiting not to be able to discuss characterisation and so on!

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  6. I feel intimidated by all these commenters who have read Shafak, or at least know of her. I want to comment on just one line ” none of us really has much of a choice between memory and forgetting”. that might be true of people but it is not true of nations. Turkey, and Australia, “forget” the atrocities in their past because it doesn’t suit their current view of themselves.

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    • That’s true, but conversely, look at the outrage over Anzac Day if anyone tries to ‘forget’ that by suggesting (as some historians do) that all the memorialising of Anzac Day displaces other aspects of our national history, i.e. the progressive achievements in the early C20th e.g. votes for women at Federation, early social welfare initiatives like pensions etc. Not perfect of course, but remarkable in the world context.
      Remembering Australia’s military history is inescapable while remembering all the social progress we’ve made is obliterated.
      (Yes, of course, I know there’s always more to be done. But taking pride in what has been achieved is part of the route to making further progress.)

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