Honor or Iskender by Elif Shafak

HonorElif Shafak is an author I’d been meaning to read.  Her novel, Flea Palace, has been sitting on my shelf for a long time.  So it’s mildly surprising that when I finally picked up one of her books it wasn’t Flea Palace but her newest novel – titled Honor in America & the UK… and Iskender everywhere else.

The writing is enchanting.  Let’s get that out of the way up front.  Elif Shafak has a beautiful, lyrical prose style that dazzles.  She’s a writer who pirouettes across the page, defying gravity and making it look easy.  It’s all very impressive.  At any second you expect her to cross the line – for the writing to become overdone, weighed down by flourishes, burdened by poetic imagery.  Yet that never happens.  She uses just the right amount of restraint.  Shafak embraces, but isn’t limited by style.

It helps that she has a preternatural ability to shift between characters  –  creating distinctive personalities and channeling the voices of men and women from a variety of backgrounds.  We’re allowed to inhabit their thoughts, and then to observe from the outside as they interact with each other.  Often within the space of a few paragraphs.

Iskender (the title I prefer) is the story of a Kurdish family that emigrates from Turkey to London in the 1970’s.  But Elif Shafak begins her plot a little before that in the rural Turkish village where the mother, Pembe, and her twin sister Jamilla live.  A young man named Adem visits and falls in love with Jamilla, but is told she is promised to another man.  And so he marries Pembe.

From the beginning the union is doomed, but Adem and Pembe have three children nonetheless.  The eldest son is named Iskender, the middle daughter Esma and the youngest (another son), Yunus.   The children acclimate quickly to England.  Their parents less so.  Adem begins gambling and takes up with a woman – who seems to work as an escort in the gambling den he visits – and deserts his family.  Pembe begins a friendship with a man named Elias who she meets secretly in old movie theaters.  Esma and Yunus have their own stories.  It is Iskender, an arrogant young man who is drifting towards radicalization, who stabs and kills his mother on learning that she is seeing a man.  It is an honor killing.  When the book begins Iskender is in prison.

That is the skeleton of the plot.  Onto it Shafak applies layer after layer of family dynamics, cultural identity and psychology.   Add to this  her beautiful prose and it’s hard not to fall in love with this book.  But Iskander has a weakness: the OCD attention to pivotal details.  I’m not exaggerating.  Shafak has the plot of her novel so tightly put together that you can hear the chapters clicking into place as you turn the page.  There is no minor detail in this book, so pay attention!  Actually, you could probably not pay attention and still not miss a thing.  Elif Shafak seems to be an adherent of Nabakov’s galley slave philosophy when it comes to “free will” for her characters and her readers.

Which is why Iskender is, on final examination, it too perfect a story.  Its author, you realize at the end, has a narrative agenda.  There’s a place Shafak intended to take her reader and she  carefully laid out the path to get there.  You are not encouraged to stray from that path. You are, instead, being moved from plot point to plot point to conclusion – with no ambiguity.  Suddenly those pirouettes seem less effortless and more practiced.

The last chapter of Iskender disappoints.  The plot twist, which isn’t entirely a twist, twists back on itself – becoming both emotionally manipulative and necessary only to the author.  Of course I won’t give the ending away, partly because up until I reached it I loved Iskender.  I was able to buy into these characters… until I didn’t anymore.

Publisher: Viking, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 6707 8483 7

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