Sunday 21 April 2013

Honour by Elif Shafak - Brit Mums Book Club - Book Review

I am very happy that I happened to be web browsing, which meant I was able to discover Brit Mums' Book Club, in time to be one of the first 100 to sign up, meaning that I received a complementary book, in exchange for a discussion.

Honour by Elif Shafak!

I will be discussing the book with fellow readers on Brit Mums' Book Club, but also wanted to write a review here.


I have a confession.  A few weeks ago I had to prepare for a Tribunal, and the day I finished preparing I was in WH Smith with £5 left on my book voucher (present from my 40th) and I saw that a Jackie Collins' book was half price.  I haven't read her in DECADES but snapped it up.  As it was VERY light reading - chick lit light.  I wanted to dump my brain to relieve the stress.  It worked! It really did.

Having only just finished that, Honour was light a cold bath after a warm one, or vice versa.  The first thing I noticed was how heavy it was, to read I mean - not exactly heavy at only 342 pages.  Some sentences I would read twice, as I really wanted to absorb every intention in the writing.  When I first started it, I would read a page or two, put it down, and read another page or two perhaps an hour later.  Once I got used to the pace of it, I was able to read a chapter, but because the content was so deep and heavy, it was still at a slow pace.  There was a lot to take in; stuff I WANTED to take in.  It is not a book for a speed reader, or if you do, you will miss the very essence and soul of it, which I feel is the beauty of the book itself.  So it was far from a FAST page turner, although a page turner it most certainly was.

It took me back to the 1970s of my childhood.  I remember the days of "no blacks, no Irish" signs that were seen in pubs and Bed and Breakfasts.  My parents on both sides are Irish and a lot of my friends in the 70s were black (as is my husband now) but the book got me to add the Muslim dimension to this sense of history.  It was so ironic to see Thatcher mentioned a few times in the book, given that she has dominated the news of late, with her recent death.  They even referred to the Winter of Discontent in the book, and the strikes etc... I remember this only too well, as I had to pose in front of a HUGE pile of uncollected rubbish for the local paper. I remember it like yesterday. I was in a blue blouse, blue jeans, hair in a ponytail, and was straddling my bike, beaming for the photo. So proud to have been asked by the Journalist, despite my backdrop being a pile of rubbish 4 times my height.  When we lived in Tottenham, I KNEW where that photo was, and would love to include it here, but with several moves over the decades, I have NO idea where it is.
Page 45: "There were piles of rubbish on the streets of East London; rotting waste was strewn everywhere, randomly scattered.  The world had gone beserk.  Everyone was on strike: firemen, miners, bakers, hospital workers, bin men.
Being an only child I cannot relate to the sibling dynamics between Esma, Yunus and Iskender, but I did love reading about their differing personalities. The way the chapters are laid out really works.  Also, the fact that some chapters are in the 70s, and some in the 90s really works too. It is a deep thought provoking book, that grabs you, and does not put you down until it has finished with you.  It does leave you wanting more though, and when coming back to the real world, the world seems rather black and white after the herbs, spices and culture ever present in the book.

The book was quite spiritual in places, with Jamila being a herbalist, and Iskender meeting a man who meditated with him. This really worked for me.  I also loved the sense of tradition and culture that was the backdrop of the whole book.  Being of Irish parents, culture is a big part of my life, but we don't have anything as extreme as honour killings, which leaves you cold, knowing that yes, it goes on in real life.  Yes, this is a fiction story, but I know various cultures partake in honour killings.

On page 165, the heroine of the book, Pembe, condones Iskender's behaviour and even gives him an alibi.  I wonder is this the beginning of him having the strength and backing to do what he did, later!  It certainly makes him think that revenge is best served cold...
"So you see, he was with me all day long. In case you were wondering, my son had nothing to do with this".
His relationship with his Mother, I think, starts to become strange because of the way she tricks him into getting circumcised, page 31.  I found this incredibly hard to read, knowing that I had my precious son circumcised too.  At least he was 8 weeks old, whereas Iskender was old enough to hide up a tree... The way she tricked him certainly means he equates love with harm.  I shiverred when reading this page.  I know it is something I would not forget were it done to me.  There are elements of one's childhood that remain with you, good and bad, like milestones.
Half turning to the man with the leather bag. she added "Take him!"  Iskender's face went pale.
I think Elif Shafak does suspense very well, in a way that is as cold as a thriller.  When the person Jamila was nursing back to health saw her go down to her basement, I quite literally felt a chill go down my spine, knowing nothing good could come of it.  Page 179:
Just at that moment, the smuggler opened his eyes.  Through his blurred vision he surveyed the hut, his gaze moving from the neatly stacked woodpile to the rifle on the wall, until it finally came to rest on the trapdoor.  An impenetrable look came over his features before he drifted back into a painful slumber.
Knowing that he saw the rifle (her defence) as well as her secret basement for all of the tools of her trade, just leaves you sick, wondering what will happen next.  It was with trepidation, and anticipation that I got myself through this entire book.

Being very spiritual I absolutely loved page 208.  An inmate rooms with Iskender. He believes he has been wrongly arrested so that he can go and have this time with him.  They meditate together daily.  It is particularly poignant when you find out much later in the book that his Mother prayed everyday for him to be sent someone who would understand him.  Anyway on page 208, it says:
"Mystics believe when we die and wake up, God asks us four questions.

1) How did you spend your time, hmm?
2) Where did you get your money from, hmm?
3) How you spent youth, hmm?
4) Very important: what did you do with the knowledge I gave you? You understand?"
Of course the main point of HONOUR in the book is to do with Pembe, but of course there is the secondary storyline of tragic Hediye.  On page 266, her Father says:
"I have no sons"
"God gave me none"
"I've never understood why he did that. Until today"
"Now I know the reason".
"If I had a son, I'd ask him to kill you and clean our family's good name. And your brother would go to gaol because of you. He would spend his life rotting amidst four walls".
So many things struck me about this.  The irony that a killing can clean a scandal, thus bringing back honour.  Surely the killing creates more of a scandal, or certainly, it ought to.  Also the fact that Hediye's Father cares more about the life of a son he never had, than he does about the heartbroken daughter, who also happens to be his first born, who is standing right in front of him.  Honour seems to mean so much, no matter what the price.

Are you starting to see why this was a heavy slow read, with me needing to digest the book as I went along.  Add to the heaviness of the subject matter, the fact that the author has a very poetic writing style, and this is a book to be pondered on and savoured, not to be swallowed in one bite.

I once watched a Jamie Oliver TV program where he said that you now have to eat 8 tomatoes to get the same benefit we once would have post-war, so it really struck a chord with me, page 272, where they are describing London:
"no tomatoes without taste, no youngsters dyeing their hair purple and terrorizing the streets with their drunken madness"

Quite far into the book, page 326 we have yet another memory [Esma's] reflecting back to the 1970s, this time about Thatcher once again:
Early days of Mrs Thatcher, huge changes underway.  England fast moving away from all that it had been, a behemoth waking from a sluggish winter dream.  My exam marks were high, always
I have been thinking about the 1970s a lot ever since Thatcher passed away, so it was quite synchronistic to read this book also, and be transported, so evocatively to the 70s.  With this author you can almost feel, see smell and touch what she describes.

I have avoided giving you any spoilers in the above, in the hope that you too read this fabulous book which I can't recommend enough. I now need to decide who to lend my precious copy to.  Probably first up will be my Mum.

This book spans several generations, and even makes you start to ponder your very own family tree.  Given that my family also moved to the UK (from Ireland) in the 1970s, I found the book particularly relevant, despite coming from such a far removed culture.

London is a place that regularly changes, as do the people within it.


  1. Great way to review the book, yes it helped me too, to remember the 70's I grew up in. A great read

  2. brilliant review. I agree there are so many layers to the story and the word 'honor' has many meanings. a good read x


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