In his novel "Anna Karenina," Tolstoy wrote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Bless unhappy families, for they are a gold mine for fiction writers. Elif Shafak's latest novel "Honor" probes the implosion of an immigrant family as it wrestles with assimilation, poverty and tradition.
"Honor," Ms. Shafak's eighth novel, is a tale of a Kurdish family living in Turkey; the multigenerational story takes the Topak family from its rural Turkish village to the bustling center of 1970s London. Multiple narrators tell the story from different perspectives, but each emphasizes the common theme of betrayal. Betrayal redounds through the generations; through the cumulative experience of the characters, the novel asks how love and betrayal can coexist.
By Elif Shafak
For example, the little boy Adem wonders how his father can be nice while sober, but mean when drunk. "How can you love somebody who also hurts you?," the boy wonders. Because alcohol makes his father into such a stranger, he believes he has "two babas (fathers)." Adem grows up to be a compulsive gambler who loses everything and abandons his wife, Pembe, for another woman. She, in turn, enters into a chaste affair with an older man. Pembe's oldest son Iskender, who dabbles in radical Islamist ideas, discovers his mother's love for another man and kills her in an effort to reclaim the family's lost honor.
It's as though the cumulative effects of damage collect and then compound in Iskender, who commits the ultimate act of violence. Reading this novel as the Boston marathon bombings took place made for an intense, emotionally super-charged experience.
Ms. Shafak was raised by two women: a single working mother in Turkey, a diplomat who was the quintessential "modern woman," and by her traditional grandmother who was superstitious and would read people's future from coffee grounds. Ms. Shafak appreciates the old and the new and brings these sensibilities together in her fiction.
"Honor" is full of characters and experiences that are doubled. This doubling allows Ms. Shafak to explore the connections between East and West and the traditional and the modern. For example, Pembe has an identical twin Jamila; Jamila becomes a rural midwife and traditional healer in Turkey while Pembe lives a "modern" life in London. The anti-immigrant racism of 1970s London is contrasted with the judgmental ideals of The Orator, the Islamist who tries to radicalize Iskender. When Iskender is serenaded by Islamist ideas that would grant him power, his sister Esma is quick to point out how contradictory these ideas are.
Even though Ms. Shafak bases much of the events in "Honor" in 1970s London, the issue of radical Islam, otherness and assimilation remain relevant. In the novel, radical Islamist ideas circulate through the immigrant community and provide sharp contrast to those who wish either to assimilate or carry on their traditional ways in peace.
Ms. Shafak infuses her fiction with uncanny coincidences and fortuitously connected events, which give the work an almost magical-realist feel. Sometimes these coincidences seem contrived. In "Honor," every event and character has some connection to another.
Ms. Shafak wrote her doctoral dissertation on Islam, women and mysticism; her fiction seems to self-consciously manipulate the Western reader's expectations about the Muslim woman. At the same time, she shows how immigrant Muslim women struggle with stifling aspects of their own traditions. At times it seems as though the author concentrates more on the political and social message of the work than the craft of writing itself, as evidenced by cliche metaphors and predictable character types.
Still, the turn of events in the novel's conclusion is unexpected. The novel does not succumb to its own stereotypes about Muslim women or radical Islamist thought.
"Honor" offers no easy answers; there are no tidily drawn conclusions to make you feel cozy before bedtime. Instead, you'll read and ponder the jumble of complexities, the broken relationships and families marked by violence. For those who survive the family's violent breakdown, there's no easy peace or moment of sublime forgiveness.
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about books and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com.