“It was an ordinary spring day in Istanbul, a long and leaden afternoon like so many others, when she discovered, with a hollowness in her stomach, that she was capable of killing someone.”
|Three Daughter’s of Eve by Elif Shafak|
These are the opening lines of Elif Shafak’s latest novel Three Daughters of Eve. The story begins with a robbery. As Peri sits in busy Istanbul city traffic, her bag is stolen from the passenger seat of her car by a homeless man. Without thinking she gives chase and what follows leads to a chain of events that force Peri’s to reflect back on her childhood memories of growing up in Istanbul, strained family relationships and her time spent studying at Oxford University under the tutelage of a controversial teacher in the shape of Professor Azur. As the novel progresses, we see Peri attending a dinner party hosted in a wealthy suburb, which only serves to reinforce Peri’s sense of disconnect from everything going on around, as the past invades the present. ‘A long-dormant part of memory’ is awakened and we go with her in her journey back through old memories.
Peri is such a well-written, fully-fleshed out character. We all know the kind of woman Shafak is writing about, when she says that she leads, ‘a decent life supporting charities, raising her children, volunteering at retirement homes.’ She’s 35 years old, established and respected and yet she finds herself, “staring at the void in her soul’. It’s telling when she adds that, “she could no longer tell how much of each day was defined by what was wished upon her and how much of I was what she really wanted.” We’re told that she feels like a fine citizen and a fine modern Muslim but what’s noteworthy is that the robbery causes the foundations of this belief to shake, more so as we learn about her past.
The protagonists potential for darkness as we read in the opening lines, is intertwined with Turkeys potential for the same kind of darkness. I found the incident with her brother particularly harrowing and was a period in Turkish history that I knew little about.
The relationship between Peri and her father is also an interesting and acts a mode through which the writer explores the clash between secularism and conservatism in Turkish society as represented by her a mother, an extremely religious woman. The vast majority of people who live in Istanbul are Muslim but in the novel, Shafak also explores those that are from the Westernized middle-classes.
The culture shock for Peri really begins in Part Two, which for me is where the novel really picks up as Peri leaves the bustle of Istanbul for quiet of Oxford. There she again meets two young women, Shirin and Mona, who once again act as opposite poles of the debate around faith and religious, as Peri stands on the fence in-between. These thee women make up the titles ‘three daughters of Eve’; Mona the Believer, Shirin the Sinner and Peri herself, the Confused. The group is rounded off by a man, Prof Azur who Peri is introduced to by Shirin. His unorthodox methods of teaching make him stand out at the University and he quickly take Peri under his wing.
Three Daughters of Eve feels like a novel that speaks to the times we live in. The writer deals with the themes of religion, faith, identity, especially Turkish identity, female friendships and sexuality. Shafak has also been hailed as the female Orhan Pamuk but I don’t think is necessarily a helpful comparison. Yes, both authors write about Turkey but they approach it in very different ways. Shafak’s is concentrated on the role of women. Her writing style is very different from that of Pamuks but her real strength lays in her storytelling abilities. Three Daughter’s of Eve is full of stories within stories and it is with delight that we get to peel back layer after layer to get to the real truth of the novel.
Reading Three Daughter’s of Eve has inspired me to seek out more of Shafak’s work, as her storytelling abilities alone make her well worth a read.
Published by Penguin, 2017
I’d also recommend giving this TED talk a watch if you’d like to hear more from the writer.