Honor by Elif Shafak is a multi-generational story of a Turkish-Kurdish family. In this book, Shafak explores the concept of honor in different cultural contexts. The story takes place in Turkey, Gaza, Kurdistan, England, and UAE.
There are a lot of characters in Honor, spread out over 3-4 generations. The story explores the role of culture in shaping people’s lives. We follow Pembe on a journey across oceans, to build a life in a distant place. Her path is not predictable, though, and she ends up switching places with her sister twice. Her identical twin sister, Jamila, the Virgin Midwife spends much of her life close to home. Each sister, in very different ways, has their life shaken. Are they victims of fate or destiny, or the fallibility of humankind?
Note that this post has lots of spoilers. You may want to read this review instead if you’d like to avoid spoilers!
It’s Pembe’s Story…
Pembe moves to London in 1970 with her husband Adem and two children: her “sultan” Iskander, and daughter Esme. Her third child, Yunus, is born in England. Jamila was the sister that Adem first fell in love with, but he accepts Pembe instead because Jamila had been kidnapped, and he won’t marry a woman who may not be a virgin.
Adem wins 2 months salary one night, but then gambles it all away the next day. After that, Pembe starts to work to help support the family. She first works in people’s homes until a husband makes sexual advances towards her. Then, she finds a job with Rita, a hairdresser from the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, Adem’s life continues to spirals out of control. He turns violent, abusive with his words, and violent with objects. Although the violence wasn’t aimed at his family, they sometimes got caught in its path. Eventually, he leaves his family to live with the other woman, an exotic dancer named Roxana.
After Adem leaves home, Pembe meets Elias, by chance, in a bakery. He defends her agains a racist sales clerk, and they spend some time together in the park sharing their purchases. Slowly, their friendship develops, and they see each other on Fridays, at movie theatres outside the city, where they could hold hands, and study each other in private. They would sometimes return to the same theatre. Their relationship never gets more sexual than kissing. Pembe only sees Elias in snatches of time, and she thinks her children don’t know about him. Then she starts to hear whispers around the neighborhood, and realizes that Yunus has seen her with Elias, one of the few times they were out in public. Esme finds out as well. Eventually, Iskander confronts her and confines her to the house. She doesn’t know the extend of his obsession with the situation though, and doesn’t realize that he knows Elias’ identity.
Meanwhile, Adem remains ensnared with Roxana. When she leaves him for another man, he follows her to Abu Dhabi where he eventually spirals further into debt. In the end, he commits suicide to escape his troubles.
… and Iskander’s story
Iskander, called Alex by his British friends, was brought up as an entitled male. As the oldest child, and male, his mother doted on him. As an example, Iskander was bullied while they lived in Kurdistan. In retaliation, he created a gang of 3 boys to take revenge on one of the bullies. When the boy’s mother came to talk to Pembe about the situation, she provided an alibi for Iskander and seemed proud of him.
When Adem leaves the family, Iskander takes on the role of head of the household. He is angry when he finds out that his mother is seeing Elias. He come home early from school one day, which happened to be the only time that Elias ever came to the house. It was an innocent visit, with Elias wanting to see Pembe’s home. Elias hid until Iskander went upstairs, but Iskander heard the stealthy noises as Elias left. That, combined with the fact that Pembe’s button was incorrectly buttoned (she had to change her shirt after dropping something on the previous one) condemns Elias in Iskander’s eyes. Once he confirms Elias’ identity, he starts following Elias at random times. He demands that his father do something about Pembe’s affair, and when Adem does nothing, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
The rest of the story
Iskander kills his mother at the age of 16, an honorable killing. He bought the knife once he found out that she was having an affair. When he finds her on the street after ordering her to stay home, he stabs her to scare her. But the blade pierces her heart, and she dies. For this, he is put in prison for 14 years. When the book begins, Esme is preparing to pick him up from the prison.
Everyone thinks that Pembe is dead, but it turns out that it was Jamila whom Iskander killed. Jamila followed her intuition that her sister needed her, and used her connections to be smuggled out of Kurdistan. She’d only arrived in London the day before, unexpectedly, and Iskander had gotten home too late to meet her. Only Yunus and Esme knew that their mother was not dead. Pembe had Esme visit Elias and tell him she was dead, and to leave their family alone. She and Yunus never told anyone that their mother was alive, except Yunus told Iskander the year before his release from prison.
Yunus helped his mother hide with his friends, and she eventually flew to Kurdistan, where she took on Jamila’s identity, except giving up midwifery. She dies at her sister’s home, from a virus she contracted while visiting her village. She’d accepted a cup of tea from a woman whose son had the virus. Esme learns this when she visits Turkey at some point.
In prison, Iskander meets Zeeshan, who helps him calm his mind. Zeeshan helps him forgive himself for killing his mother, and write a letter to present to his mother when he asks her forgiveness. Zeeshen is freed from his wrongful conviction and released from prison before Iskander finishes his time.
As Esme is driving Iskander to her home from prison, she reveals to him that their mother has died. He’s disappointed but seems to consider that she would have forgiven him. He releases the letter outside the car window. Then he starts reading the book about Alaska that Esme has in the glove compartment so that he can answer her daughters questions about the place they think he’s been all their lives.
There are lots of storylines in Honor, and you should definitely read it for yourself.
- Dreamy Yunus who befriends a group of outcasts who end up providing his mother refuge
- Adam’s brother, Tariq, who told Iskander about his mother’s affair (and possibly encouraged him to do something about it)
- Elias, the kind man who Pembe falls in love with but only has a short, mostly innocent time with
- Nadir, Esme’s supportive, calm husband
- Aisha, Adem’s mother who ran away with another man
- Hediya, Pembe’s sister who run away, and was later served a noose by her stepmother so she could do the honorable thing and hang herself (with her father’s awareness)
- The Orator, a friend of Iskander who shares his ideology with Iskander. He is one of the people that Iskander goes to for help to figure out what to do about his mother
- Katie, Iskander’s pregnant, British girlfriend, who kept the baby
Honor by Elif Shafak is a big, interesting book with lots of minor storylines. She explores how the cultural notion of honor can have disastrous results for both men and women. Iskander’s notion of honor is only one of the examples that results in disaster for all involved.