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Honour by Elif Şafak

Elif shafak honourMy mother died twice.  I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten, but I could never find the time or the will or the courage to write about it. That is, until recently.

I first heard of Elif Shafak by a half Swedish half Turkish colleague that work with me last year. Since then I have been keeping an eye on Shafak, and Honour was longlisted in this year’s Women’s Fiction Prize so it is time to give Shafak novels a go.

In a village near the River Euphrates in the late 1970’s, two twin sisters were born in addition to the six daughters the couple already have. They were called Bext and Bese (in Kurdish) (Destiny and Enough) by their harsh and disciplinarian mother, and revert to Pembe and Jamila – Pink and Beautiful by their affectionate father which have chosen names like sugar cubes hat melted in your tea, sweet and yielding, with no sharp edges. They came to be known by the village as Pink Destiny and Beautiful Enough. 😉

Pembe went on to marry Adem Toprak, although with a slight twist of the fate, as Adem was supposed to fall for Jamila first. Pembe and Adem sought their fortune in London and bore three children, Iskender, Esma and Yunus. Iskender being the eldest son was the apple of the eye of Pembe. Esma is studious and feisty, a feminist in the making, is the voice behind the novel. Yunus is the philosopher. The dreamer. The hermit who lived in an imaginary cave of his own, finding riches in ordinary things, company in solitude, beauty everywhere,  who run errands for the squatters in the neighbourhood and hang out with punks and social outcast, reminiscence of the late 70’s Britain.

The characters are given ample time in the limelight, long enough for me to catch a glimpse of what their anxieties and aspirations are. It covers Adem and his lover Roxanna, Elias the man that Pembe met at the bakery, they all are lonely and has a longing that yearns to be fulfilled. I thought Shafak did a great job showcasing the collection of character caricature of the migrant society.

I read Shafak’s novel with wonder of how she is so at ease in both East and West cultures. When she speaks of Muslim tradition, she spoke it out of an insider’s voice; and when she narrates lives in the West, she spoke it out from one that grew up in the western society as well. Her writing is clear and concise, with clean sentences that are filled with impact. She doesn’t mince her words when it comes to conveying a thought, no matter how offensive it may be.

Men had honour. Women did not have honour. Instead, they had shame.

Yunus I fold the paper in half, creasing the corners down into the middle. A square, two triangles, a rectangle… ..a paper boat. I put it on the floor. There is no water to make it float. No gust to push the sails. You would think it was made of cement. It doesn’t go anywhere. Like the pain in my chest. – Iskender Toprak

For the first time since she had arrived in England, Pembe though there was something enchanting about the weather – beyond the wind and the rain and the clouds, there looked a kind of serenity she had got used to and come to love without realising it. She grew pensive.

Not everyone would understand this, but their honour was all that some men had in this world. The rich could afford to lose and regain their reputation, buying influence as perfunctorily as ordering a new car or refurnishing their mansions, but for the rest of the world things were different. The less means a man had, the higher was the worth of his honour.

Snails were hermaphrodites, having both female and male reproductive organs. Why couldn’t human beings be like that? If only God had modelled us on snails, there would be less heartbreak and agony in this world.

We learn from difference, not from sameness.

It’s a family tradition, shrouding the truth in veils, burying it deep within the stagnation of everyday life, so that after awhile it cannot be reached, even in your imagination.

I was drawn to the pains and yearnings­ of each character. Despite the abominable crime that Iskender did, I felt sorry for him. I felt the weight of his guilt. Despite Pembe’s fear, I quivered to read of her escapade from her mundane life as a submissive Muslim woman in the neighbourhood of Hackney.  I feel the tension of being a woman in a Muslim country and even when in a foreign country where the honour needs to be intact. The warning seems to be: Follow your desire at your peril. Yet those suppressed desire of Pembe and Jamila that has no outlet to vent was what aches and saddens me. One wrong decision and their lives are condemned. The story alternates between 1940’s Turkey and 1970’s London, began with the aftermath of a family tragedy, a murder; and slowly the chapters unveiled the motivation and incident of the murder.

Honour covers many themes that of interest to me. Honour explores what it means to be an immigrant and still carries that culture within to a land that contradicts the community values. Honour explores issues on Muslim women in a traditional society. More in depth, it covers the irony of what men can do, and what Muslim women can’t. How a son can be put in the place of an absence father to guard the honour of his mother and sister; how a man can fled with his mistress without redress and a women who elopes will be presented with a rope. Honour also explores a childhood with an absent parent and how the impressionable adolescence years and the company that he keeps, shapes the destiny of young Muslim men.

Shafak is an extraordinary writer. Vivid storytelling and employing patience to explore the psyche of each and every one of her characters in the novel. I savour every single word in Honour, a very rare thing I would do as I tend to speed read and sped through books. There is minor quibble that all her characters seems to carry a sad, melancholic and identical voice but that doesn’t deter me from loving the book. I admit I didn’t see the final twist coming and I was moved and my heart ached from reading the final chapter. Shafak has been longlisted for many book awards and I think it is time a writer as Shafak calibre deserves to be recognised. I will be rooting for the book to be shortlisted or win the Women Fiction Award 2013.

Personally, Elif Shafak looks set to be my favourite author. I will be reading her backlist.

Rating: five_stars

I thank the publisher for sending me the Advance Reader Copy (ARC) via NetGalley.

Kindle copy. Publisher: Penguin Viking 2013; Printed Length: 352 pages; Setting: Turkey and London, UK. Source: Netgalley ARC copy. Finished reading on: 21st March 2013, Thursday.

Other view:

Claire (Word by Word): Writing that crosses cultures and observes characters doing the same invokes a sense of empathy, she is a writer whose work I will be following and whose city I look forward to visiting in May this year.

Stu@Winston’s Dad: I love Shafak style of writing it is lush and hints at magic realism with out ever falling full length into it, the book  has echoes of both writers like Pamuk but also a large chunk of Gabriel Garcia Marquez especially in scope I was reminded of books like Love in the time of Cholera and 100 Years .

About the writer:

elif-shafakElif Şafak (born 1971, Strasbourg, France) is a Turkish writer. She is one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary literature in both Turkish and English. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages, and she was awarded the honorary distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Şafak was born in Strasbourg to philosopher Nuri Bilgin and Şafak Atayman who later became a diplomat. When she was a year old her parents separated and Şafak was raised by a single mother. She said that not growing up in a typical patriarchal family had a great impact on her work and writing. She incorporated her mother’s first name, which means Dawn, with her own when constructing her pen name.

Şafak spent her teenage years in Madrid and Amman before returning to Turkey. She has also lived in Boston, Michigan, Arizona, Istanbul and London.

Şafak is a political scientist, having graduated from the program in International Relations at Middle East Technical University in Turkey. She holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies and a Ph.D. in political science from the same university. Her master’s thesis on Islam, women, and mysticism (“Islamic Mysticism and the Circular Understanding of Time”) received an award from the Social Scientists Institute.

Şafak is a regular contributor to the Haberturk, a major newspaper in Turkey as well as several international daily & weekly publications, including The Guardian , The New York Times, Le Monde, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Time (Magazine), Newsweek and has been featured in the U.S. on National Public Radio.

Her nonfiction covers a wide range of topics, including belonging, identity, gender, mental ghettoes, daily life politics, multicultural literature and the art of coexistence. These essays have been collected in three books, Med-Cezir (2005), Firarperest (2010) and Şemspare (2012).


  • Honour, Nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2012; Longlisted for Women Fiction Prize 2013.
  • The Forty Rules of Love, Nominated for 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • Chevalier Des Arts et Lettres
  • Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation “The Art of Coexistence Award-2009”
  • International Rising Talent, Women’s Forum – Deauville, France 2009
  • The Bastard of Istanbul, Long listed for Orange Prize for Fiction, London 2008
  • The Gaze, Longlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2007
  • Maria Grazia Cutuli Award – International Journalism Prize, Italy 2006
  • The Flea Palace, Short listed for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2005
  • The Gaze, Union of Turkish Writers’ Best Novel Prize, 2000
  • Pinhan, The Great Rumi Award, Turkey 1998

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


13 thoughts on “Honour by Elif Şafak

  1. Thanks for the link to my review Jo, so happy you got to read this and even more so that you will read more of her. It is great to see her work evolve and come more into the mainstream where it deserves to be.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | March 29, 2013, 9:59 am
    • Claire,
      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, let us be the force to promote her work. I think Shafak is very talented and her novels deserve to be the mainstream voice. I won’t be surprised she can write other things besides being Kurdish / Turkish and Muslim tradition. I like to see her being the voice of women empowerment.

      Posted by JoV | March 29, 2013, 10:02 am
  2. Ah, now you have given me two books to read from one review! I already own the Bastard of Istanbul (mentioned on the cover photo) and now this one. This sounds like a great melding of east and west, Britain and Muslim.

    Posted by Helen Murdoch | March 29, 2013, 1:41 pm
    • Helen,
      Shafak did a good melding indeed. Most books I read took one way or another (East vs West) but Shafak managed to blend both easily. It is a delight to read this and I will be reading Bastard of Istanbul too one day!

      Posted by JoV | March 29, 2013, 1:46 pm
  3. I know it is unfair of me but I cannot understand one thing about the Muslim faith. Perhaps we could even substitute the word “understand” with “accept”. It seems such a small faith, intent on debasement of others including their own women. Where is the God of love? Where is acceptance and forgiveness? At least you read of their plight; I won’t even do that any more after the likes of Kite Runner…

    Posted by Bellezza | March 31, 2013, 3:03 am
    • Bellezza,
      I think we need to differentiate the faith with the act of human traditions or cultures. It is not always easy but we have to in order not to lump human doings with what is taught by the faith.

      The faith descended on a group of community who are bound to this honour code, and like many others, think the faith equates the community value, therefore follow suit.

      Posted by JoV | March 31, 2013, 1:03 pm
  4. Wow, you really loved this book 🙂
    I’m excited to start it now. I’m half way through Alif the Unseen and whilst it’s completely different from how I thought it would be, I love it. My request for The People of Forever was approved to, so I have lots of good reading to look forward to…

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | March 31, 2013, 1:42 pm
    • Sam,
      I really do love this book. I am glad you love Alif the Unseen. Always nice to have another person on my side on this one. 😉
      I have finished The People of Forever last Saturday, just that I have been busy since but review soon to come!

      Posted by JoV | March 31, 2013, 1:57 pm
  5. I’ve just finished this book and I enjoyed it too. I didn’t love it as much as you did as I thought it got a bit slow in the middle, but I also admired the way this book combined Eastern and Western cultures. I hope it makes the shortlist too.

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | April 2, 2013, 12:53 pm
  6. I felt this could been a bet trilogy in parts it just felt compressed to me ,I loved her writing like you and will be reading others by her ,in fact one of her books is on bookclub on radio four this week ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | April 2, 2013, 4:43 pm
    • Stu,
      There were many voices but I like it as it is. Esma’s and Yunus’ story feels like it needs a sequel. I too would like to read her backlist. Thanks for stopping by Stu.

      Posted by JoV | April 4, 2013, 7:22 pm


  1. Pingback: Honour by Elif Shafak – Farm Lane Books Blog - April 8, 2013

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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