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I read Honour, by Elif Shafak, for a discussion group at work. it’s a complicated novel about Adem and Pembe Toprak, Kurdish Turks who have emigrated to London in the 1970s with their children, Iskander (whose English friends call him Alex) and Esma. In England they have a second son, Yunus. While the family has a decent life in London, both Adem and Pembe bear the scars of their childhoods in Turkey, where rules about propriety, violence, and shame deeply impact them and their families.

Shafak changes point of view and time period frequently, which is something I don’t usually like and often find confusing. But I managed to follow what was happening in Honour, and the shifting narrative works well in this story. Different perspectives remind the reader that the same event, viewed through a different lens, might appear differently. And she is telling different generations’ stories, so the shifting comes naturally.

We learn early — right in the first chapter, from Esma, that she has a brother who is a murderer. The rest of the book marches steadily towards that moment. But it also veers back into the past, into Pembe’s childhood, where she and her twin sister, Jamila, grew up in village, in a family of eight daughters, and where their mother died trying to bear a son. And into Adem’s childhood, where he grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father, whose actions destroyed his family, even though his wife, Adem’s mother, is the one who brought them shame.

This is one of the book’s themes: men do plenty of dishonourable things, but women are the ones who bring shame to the family. And yet, there are a few kindly or wise men, and a few women who judge things shameful or enable or mete out the punishment to those who have brought shame; Shafak doesn’t oversimplify the moral universe of her book. She touches on extremism, nationalism, the pressures to conform to western standards of beauty, the dangers of forcing men and women into set gender roles, and the painful consequences of capitalism, all without forcing any of these things on readers — they unfold in the novel naturally.

Religion and belief play a strong role, but Shafak is once again skillful and nonjudgemental; even the most extreme beliefs appear within their contexts to be part of the lives she portrays. She doesn’t over-dramatize or make the God the culprit when humans act outside their own interest, but she also doesn’t belittle the strongly held beliefs some of her characters have. Love is also a central theme, and the relationships between family members, friends, and lovers. There wasn’t a relationship in the book that felt forced for the plot or unrealistic, and that’s saying something in a story this complex.

Shafak manages to write a book that doesn’t feel heavy or brutal, but empathetic and somewhat hopeful, even as she tells the story of people burdened by heartbreaking circumstances. A very interesting read, that took me into other people’s lives. I always love a book that transports me and this one did that, whether to Istanbul, a Kurdish village or remote areas of Turkey, London, or a jail cell in Shrewsbury. Oddly, there is even a brief outbreak of a deadly virus.

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This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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