Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish author who also lives in Britain.  Her novels have been nominated for the Booker, the IMPAC, the Man Asian and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  She writes in both Turkish and English, and since no translator is credited in the edition I read, I assume that Three Daughters of Eve was written in English. Although it was nominated for several prizes, I was disappointed by Honour (2013), a novel about so-called ‘honour killings’ but Three Daughters of Eve is better constructed and more plausible.  The settings — Istanbul and Oxford — are superbly realised, contrasting the chaotic energy of Turkey’s largest city and financial centre with the static charm of British academia’s historic heart. These settings frame a novel of contrasts, tugging at the intellect and emotions of its central character, Peri. Peri grows up in a family rent by spiritual conflict.  Her father is a belligerent atheist while her mother is a pious Muslim. They argue constantly, sniping at each other at every possible opportunity.  Peri, whose brothers embody these conflicts, witnesses the fallout from political repression and of extreme religiosity, and longs for a middle ground, developing a naïve belief that she might be the one to bring harmony into this divided home. Though it’s a financial struggle for her family, her chance comes, she thinks, when she takes up a place at Oxford and encounters a charismatic professor whose course explores issues surrounding God.  Not the least of these is, of course, the problem of reconciling a benevolent omnipotent God with the evils of the world. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Professor Azar has a God complex.  He’s not just interested in sectarian conflict, he likes to generate it, and has deliberately chosen his students to represent different attitudes towards religion and faith.  He manipulates their activities so that those holding extreme positions have to work together, and some of the other academic staff are dubious about the psychological distress he has been known to cause.  He goes so far as to engineer Peri into joining a share house with the radical Shirin and the pious Mona, reproducing the tension and conflict from Peri’s home in Turkey as the women argue passionately about identity, Islam, feminism and modernity. The structure of the novel hints at some dramatic conflict that impacted on these women and their professor.  Three Daughters of Eve begins with middle-aged Peri with her teenage daughter Deniz on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul.  The traffic and her tiresome daughter combine to transform Peri from a respectable woman who represses her emotions into an Amazon who takes off after a handbag thief but almost gets raped in the back streets.  With a bandaged hand and torn dress, she finally arrives at the dinner party but refuses to conform to the expectations of the guests that she tidy herself up.  The progress of this dinner party is woven through the novel, enabling Shafak to comment on male entitlement and women’s rights, the gulf between rich and poor in modern Turkey, the secular-Islamist divide, and the tension between Turkish identity and Europeanising influences such as the movement for democracy and acceptance into the EU.  But for Peri, the photo that fell from her bag brings back memories of her time at Oxford and the people who were so important in her life. Memory and forgetting are important motifs in the novel.  At the dinner party, the physics professor raises the spectre of Turkey becoming fundamentalist like Iran. Peri said, ‘There’s that danger.  But Iran is a society of memory and tradition.  We Turks are good at amnesia.’ ‘Which do you think is preferable?’ asked Darren beside her. ‘Remembering or forgetting? ‘They both have their drawbacks,’ Peri replied without hesitation. ‘But I’d rather forget.  The past is a burden.  What’s the use of remembering when we can’t change anything?’ (p.285) One of the other dinner-party guests, Azur, agrees, joking that he’d rather not have a memory and can’t wait to have Alzheimer’s.  But just a few pages later, after TV reports of a terrorist event and the death of a teacher has shaken the party mood,  Peri’s husband Adnan muses on the transience of memory: ‘It’s not only terrorism or the horror of it,’ Adnan said. ‘It’s how easily we get used to such news.  Tomorrow this time few people will be talking about the teacher.  In a week, he’ll be forgotten.’ (p.304) When is it too soon to forget? Shafak’s allusion to Turkish ‘amnesia’ could refer to many things, but the obvious one is the Armenian Genocide, whose remembrance is proscribed in Turkey.  Like the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, she was prosecuted (but not convicted) of “insulting Turkishness” in her second novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, (long-listed for the Orange Prize)  So it’s interesting to see here in this dialogue that Peri thinks there’s no value in remembering.  Perhaps the conflicts between her parents, siblings and housem

Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak


Elif Shafak is a Turkish author who also lives in Britain.  Her novels have been nominated for the Booker, the IMPAC, the Man Asian and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  She writes in both Turkish and English, and since no translator is credited in the edition I read, I assume that Three Daughters of Eve was written in English.

Although it was nominated for several prizes, I was disappointed by Honour (2013), a novel about so-called ‘honour killings’ but Three Daughters of Eve is better constructed and more plausible.  The settings — Istanbul and Oxford — are superbly realised, contrasting the chaotic energy of Turkey’s largest city and financial centre with the static charm of British academia’s historic heart. These settings frame a novel of contrasts, tugging at the intellect and emotions of its central character, Peri.

Peri grows up in a family rent by spiritual conflict.  Her father is a belligerent atheist while her mother is a pious Muslim. They argue constantly, sniping at each other at every possible opportunity.  Peri, whose brothers embody these conflicts, witnesses the fallout from political repression and of extreme religiosity, and longs for a middle ground, developing a naïve belief that she might be the one to bring harmony into this divided home. Though it’s a financial struggle for her family, her chance comes, she thinks, when she takes up a place at Oxford and encounters a charismatic professor whose course explores issues surrounding God.  Not the least of these is, of course, the problem of reconciling a benevolent omnipotent God with the evils of the world.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Professor Azar has a God complex.  He’s not just interested in sectarian conflict, he likes to generate it, and has deliberately chosen his students to represent different attitudes towards religion and faith.  He manipulates their activities so that those holding extreme positions have to work together, and some of the other academic staff are dubious about the psychological distress he has been known to cause.  He goes so far as to engineer Peri into joining a share house with the radical Shirin and the pious Mona, reproducing the tension and conflict from Peri’s home in Turkey as the women argue passionately about identity, Islam, feminism and modernity.

The structure of the novel hints at some dramatic conflict that impacted on these women and their professor.  Three Daughters of Eve begins with middle-aged Peri with her teenage daughter Deniz on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul.  The traffic and her tiresome daughter combine to transform Peri from a respectable woman who represses her emotions into an Amazon who takes off after a handbag thief but almost gets raped in the back streets.  With a bandaged hand and torn dress, she finally arrives at the dinner party but refuses to conform to the expectations of the guests that she tidy herself up.  The progress of this dinner party is woven through the novel, enabling Shafak to comment on male entitlement and women’s rights, the gulf between rich and poor in modern Turkey, the secular-Islamist divide, and the tension between Turkish identity and Europeanising influences such as the movement for democracy and acceptance into the EU.  But for Peri, the photo that fell from her bag brings back memories of her time at Oxford and the people who were so important in her life.

Memory and forgetting are important motifs in the novel.  At the dinner party, the physics professor raises the spectre of Turkey becoming fundamentalist like Iran.

Peri said, ‘There’s that danger.  But Iran is a society of memory and tradition.  We Turks are good at amnesia.’

‘Which do you think is preferable?’ asked Darren beside her. ‘Remembering or forgetting?

‘They both have their drawbacks,’ Peri replied without hesitation. ‘But I’d rather forget.  The past is a burden.  What’s the use of remembering when we can’t change anything?’ (p.285)

One of the other dinner-party guests, Azur, agrees, joking that he’d rather not have a memory and can’t wait to have Alzheimer’s.  But just a few pages later, after TV reports of a terrorist event and the death of a teacher has shaken the party mood,  Peri’s husband Adnan muses on the transience of memory:

‘It’s not only terrorism or the horror of it,’ Adnan said. ‘It’s how easily we get used to such news.  Tomorrow this time few people will be talking about the teacher.  In a week, he’ll be forgotten.’ (p.304)

When is it too soon to forget?

Shafak’s allusion to Turkish ‘amnesia’ could refer to many things, but the obvious one is the Armenian Genocide, whose remembrance is proscribed in Turkey.  Like the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, she was prosecuted (but not convicted) of “insulting Turkishness” in her second novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, (long-listed for the Orange Prize)  So it’s interesting to see here in this dialogue that Peri thinks there’s no value in remembering.  Perhaps the conflicts between her parents, siblings and housemates just makes her yearn for peace?

In reality, of course, none of us really has much of a choice between memory and forgetting, it just happens whether we intend it to or not.  As we know from Andrea Goldsmith’s wonderful book The Memory Trap  societies do choose, by some kind of consensus, to memorialise some events and to ignore others.  The media, as we see in Jon Mcgregor’s Reservoir 13, has a role to play in keeping memories of events in the public eye.  As individuals, we keep photo albums, scrapbooks and memorabilia, (or their digital equivalents).  But there are always events in our own lives that we forget, and others that we remember, and there are complex reasons for this.

There’s a razor-sharp moment in this novel, when Professor Azur asks his class what they would want God to say if he were actually present.  The responses vary, but are mostly about love in some way.  But Peri says that what she’d like is for him to apologise, for all the injustice in the world.

Amen to that!

Other reviews: Ron Charles at the Washington Post; Claire McAlpine at Word by Word,  and at Publisher’s Weekly 

Author: Elif Shafak
Title: Three Daughters of Eve
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN: 9780241288047, pbk., 367 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Eltham Bookshop, $32.99