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Book club: Honour, by Elif Shafak

03 July 2020

Natalie Watson on Elif Shafak’s novel Honour, about a Turkish family in 1970s London

ONE of the interesting aspects of rereading a book is that this does not necessarily mean that one reads the same book twice. Rather, one might discover things that appeared of little significance at the time of the first reading, or simply didn’t register. It was on the last page of Elif Shafak’s novel Honour that I noticed the way in which Esma, one of the central characters, describes what she is told about the death of her mother, Pembe: “A virus. The disease began with a skin rash. . . It had emerged late in the spring of 1992, passing from animals to humans. . . She had probably contracted it when she paid a visit to her village.”

In many ways, Pembe’s death through a virus that has since been forgotten — after all, “then it disappeared as if it had never been” — is incidental to the plot of Honour. It is not Shafak’s best-known book — The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul are more readily found in high-street bookshops — but it is, perhaps, her most powerful one. Esma describes Pembe’s falling victim to an unknown virus as her dying for the second time. It is, however, her first “dying” that is the subject of this remarkable piece of modern Turkish fiction.

The experience of living between different societies — between different worlds, so it often seems — is inevitably central to Shafak’s books, as are the questionable yet likewise inevitable judgements that inhabitants of one culture make about another, and the complex experiences and patterns of human relationships behind them.

Honour tells the story of a Kurdish family from a village in eastern Turkey. Adem and his wife, Pembe, move to Istanbul, and eventually to London, while Pembe’s twin sister, Jamila, remains in the village. In London, Pembe struggles with a life that contains little that is familiar, and is without human warmth. She finds work in a hair salon, and her husband eventually moves away from the family, leaving Pembe and her three teenage children alone, each trying to make sense of the world around them.

Gender roles and expectations and the way in which they are shaped are a key theme in this remarkable book. While, in English, “Honor” is a primarily feminine given name, in the village near the Euphrates this seems unthinkable: “You could call your child ‘Honour’, as long as it was a boy. . . Women did not have honour. Instead, they had shame. And, as everyone knew, Shame would be a rather poor name to bear.”

© Oliver HessThe author Elif Shafak, often described as Turkey’s most widely read female novelist

Eventually, in a chance encounter, Pembe meets Elias, when he comes to her aid in an encounter of everyday discrimination in a shop. A friendship and eventually an extramarital affair develop between Elias and Pembe. They meet in cinemas, away from the eyes of Pembe’s children and her husband’s extended family. Pembe’s son Iskender, however, conflicted by the struggle to negotiate his male identity, does find out. He eventually decides that he must defend the family’s honour, and makes the fateful decision to kill.

The Times reports the story as one of many cases, and a spokeswoman (for Scotland Yard) is quoted as saying: “Those closest to the victims are the ones who suppress valuable information. It is a growing cancer in modern society, given that in numerous communities the honour of the family is deemed to be more important than the happiness of its individuals.”

We gain insights into Iskender through his reflections in prison, but we are also told about some incidents in his life that have shaped his experience of loyalty and betrayal — experiences that judges and spokespeople may never know: for example, his early childhood memory of his mother’s being unwilling and unable to protect him from the pain and public humiliation of circumcision, or his English girlfriend’s refusal to terminate her pregnancy with his child.

At the beginning of the book, his sister Esma is reflecting on his imminent release from prison more than a decade later. To reveal more of the story would be a spoiler, but it is enough to say that Pembe herself disappears — in a somewhat unrealistic turn in the plot — into a community of punk squatters, and eventually returns to her native village.

Honour is set in 1970s London, preceding many events that have shaped our world. Yet, in reading it, we may discover questions not only about right and wrong, but also about how we think about people and what appears strange and alien to us in the lives of others. Novels are not written to provide answers to unsolvable moral conflicts, and can do little more than enable readers to see that a simple moral judgement may take us only so far; and yet that does not mean that the original question is not a valid one to ask.

Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, editor, and writer based in Peterborough.

Honour by Elif Shafak is published by Penguin at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop, £8.10); 978-0-241-97294-6.


  1. “I blame them all for making me the person I was.” Who is to blame for Iskender’s actions, in your opinion?

  2. “My mother was a superstitious woman.” How does superstition function in the novel?

  3. How do racism and attitudes towards immigrants affect the actions of the characters?

  4. Men are described as having “honour”, while women, instead, have “shame”. Why is this? What examples are there of this later in the novel?

  5. Are the women in the novel, Pembe in particular, complicit in upholding the patriarchal structure? Why might this be?

  6. Why is the Orator so appealing to Iskender? Why are the squatters so appealing to Yunus?

  7. In what ways are are names significant in the novel? Why are so many different names used for the same characters?

  8. Of the three siblings, Yunus is described as simply trying to comprehend the world. What difficulties does he encounter when trying to do this?

  9. What part does faith play in the novel? Is this the same, here, as religion?

  10. Why do we often hurt those whom we love?

IN our next reading-groups page, on 7 August, we will print extra information about our next book, Florence Nightingale: The woman and her legend by Mark Bostridge. It is published by Penguin at £12.99 (£11.69); 978-0-241-98922-7. 


It was during the Crimean War (1853-1856) that Florence Nightingale became known as “the lady with the lamp”, a sentimental and enduring image of saintly, feminine compassion. Today, 200 years after her birth, she remains largely unchanged in public consciousness. Mark Bostridge’s biography explores and often debunks well-worn narratives about Nightingale, producing a clear-sighted, complex, and human narrative of her life, and revealing a wide-ranging career beyond the battlefield. In doing so, Bostridge examines her religious faith and influences as well as her interest in science and statistics, and her copious writings on nursing.


Born in 1961, Mark Bostridge read modern history at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where he was awarded the Gladstone Memorial Prize. Bostridge’s non-fiction writing includes The Fateful Year, a study of England in 1914, and several award-winning books on the writer, nurse, and peace campaigner Vera Brittain. His biography of Florence Nightingale was awarded the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, and named as a book of the year in The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. He is the brother of the tenor Ian Bostridge, and the great-grandson of the Millwall and Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper John “Tiny” Joyce.


September: Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
October: Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

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