Women’s Prize for Fiction Contender: Elif Shafak

Elif ShafakStill two weeks to go before the shortlist is announced for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction) and I’ve just finished Honour by Elif Shafak, in contention as one of 20 longlisted novels. I’m rather ambitiously planning to read the shortlisted novels as part of Anne’s April Reading Challenge – a challenge that also encompasses a bunch of books vying for the Arthur C Clarke Prize.

‘Honour’ by Elif Shafak

This is the first novel I’ve read by Elif Shafak, who writes in both English and Turkish. Her novel The Bastard of Istanbul was longlisted for The Orange Prize and she is also well known for The Forty Rules of Love. Shafak has written eight novels to date.

Honour is the sad though illuminating story of an immigrant family living in Hackney, London. They arrive from Turkey in the 1970s hoping to make better lives for themselves. But all turns sour when father Adem slides into a gambling addiction. He deserts the family and, in his absence, his wife Pembe strikes up a friendship with Elias.

The novel jumps back and forth in time to reveal Adem’s and Pembe’s tragic backgrounds. And at the outset of the novel we learn that their eldest son Iskender has committed a murder and is serving time in Shrewsbury Prison. His sister Esma is anxiously awaiting his release. Indeed, much of the story is told through the eyes of Esma, Iskender and their younger brother Yunus.

There are the expected culture clashes, and some less than expected – Yunus befriends a collective of squatters. And throughout the novel, there’s the intriguing relationship between Pembe and her twin sister Jamila who remained in Turkey.

However… for a novel grounded in social realism I felt several key events in Honour were too implausible, particularly at the plot’s denouement. In addition, the concept of having twins as an important element in the plot was, in theory, a neat device but it felt increasingly contrived as the story progressed.

I may not be tempted to read  Elif Shafak’s other novels but I will read her memoir Black Milk in which she discusses the writings of several female novelists – Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Ayn Rand.

Yes! Ayn Rand – not everyone’s cup of tea. I loved Ayn Rand’s Anthem and I’m intrigued that Shafak references her work.

Next up: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I’m looking forward to this one having read When Will There Be Good News?

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