Three Daughters of Eve
by Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak is a novelist on a mission: to bring an understanding of Turkey, with its wonders, tensions and contradictions, to western readers. Her provocative books have made her Turkey’s most widely read female novelist: a woman who refuses to remain mute on political matters. Consequently her work is a melding of fact and fiction, dealing with issues through stories. Here she examines religious convention, particularly Islam, while taking an acerbic view of modern Istanbul under the Erdogan government.
The novel opens in a classic Istanbul traffic jam. Peri, already late for a dinner party at a rich business associate of her husband, is stuck immobile when a thief grabs her handbag through the open window. Giving chase, she catches up with the man who empties the bag, taking the valuables. Left behind is a polaroid photo from her youth. The book then flips between the dinner party and the events behind the photo.
Peri is the daughter of a secular father who has taken to drink and an overtly religious mother, always pulled between them, never able to choose. One brother is left wing activist who is tortured and jailed, the other a Turkish nationalist who believes the world is against his country. Encouraged by her father, who believes that education is the key to a better life, she applies to Oxford University and leaves home. At
Oxford she takes a seminar led by the charismatic Professor Azur, who has an intellect and drive too dangerous for a searching soul like Peri.
Shafak captures the tranquillity of Oxford contrasting with the vibrancy of Istanbul. Her vivid descriptions transport the reader to both places; one can feel the cold and damp in Oxford and taste the Turkish food while feeling the distance Peri feels from both the rituals of the Istanbul bourgeoisie and student life of a grand university. The fluency and ease of her writing masks the discipline of keeping two stories running concurrently gripping the reader, yet that very discipline throws up the major flaw of the book: the obvious subjugation of the characters to the thesis.
While the constant bickering between her parents, mostly on the subject of religion is credible and provides both humour and angst, when Peri chooses as her two best friends young women with opposing ideas on Islam, the headscarfed Mona and wild Shirin, structure interferes with enjoyment. The book may be called Three Daughters of Eve, but two of them are barely fleshed out, merely ciphers for the book’s objective of exploring differences in religion. When one can see the joins, the book fails. Which is a shame, because Shafak is brilliant, both as a writer and storyteller.
It is both highly readable and thought provoking. To be recommended, even if it really needed another draft.