Honour By Elif Shafak Penguin Viking, £14.99
Journalists, says Iskander, the young man whose terrible crime is at the heart of this gripping new novel, “are not really interested in the truth. All they want to do is fit you into the story that’s already in their minds”.
Turkish-born Iskander has murdered his mother in the belief that she has brought shame on their family, and those bare facts will inevitably suggest stories to readers’ minds, stories of religious fundamentalism and oppression, of stereotypical Muslim immigrants.
But the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, as those who have read her breakthrough novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, will already know, is not interested in stereotypes. With the story of the Turkish-Kurdish Toprak family, who move to London and find themselves affected by their new home in different ways, she examines questions of class, race and gender insightfully and compellingly, and she does so through a cast of unforgettable and complex characters.
In the 1960s, Turkish Adem marries Pembe, a Kurdish girl, and in the early 1970s the family move to London. Their three children – cocky, angry Iskander, his smart, determined sister Esma, and shy, curious Yunus – feel at home in England in a way their parents never will. As the couple drift apart, their children follow their own paths: Iskander has an adoring English girlfriend, Esma dreams of being a writer, and little Yunus finds unlikely friends in a group of punk squatters.
The story is told from the point of view of each central character, and as the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time we grow to understand how the Topraks’ spoiled eldest son will eventually make the biggest mistake of his life. In the experiences not only of Pembe but also of her sisters and, indeed, her mother-in-law, Shafak brilliantly highlights the consequences of the belief that a woman’s sexual purity is a reflection of her family’s status. But she also shows Turkish women as independent and brave, and she doesn’t blame Islam for their treatment. (Iskander is not religious at all.) Moving, subtle and ultimately hopeful, Honour is further proof that Shafak is the most exciting Turkish novelist to reach western readers in years.
By Ken Bruen
Transworld Ireland, £12.99
Jack Taylor is probably the least private eye in crime fiction. In Ken Bruen’s novels, Taylor is as well known on Galway’s streets as Eyre Square itself, and as easy to find. Further, he’s “an alkie vigilante with notions above his station”, as one character describes him here. Would you commission this man to find your wandering daughter?
Headstone is the ninth in the Jack Taylor series, and Ken Bruen’s 29th novel in total. The plot finds Taylor pitched against a neo-Nazi group bent on slaughter, while also trying to track down a priest who has absconded with the funds of an Opus Dei-style organisation.
As always, the plot is incidental. It is traditional for fictional private eyes to investigate a disappearance, an absence or a lack, in the process shining a light into the dark corners of the culture from which they spring. Taylor tends to ramble around Galway pointing out its shortcomings in his uniquely bleak and lacerating way, occasionally remembering to engage with the job he has been commissioned to do.
“Mostly what you got was tired,” he says after one less-than-heroic effort. “My limp ached. I even did a Google search. Nope. He had really flown under the radar.”
Bruen, of course, is fully aware of Taylor’s limitations, both as a man and as a hero of a series of novels. Taylor is the self-referential, knowing creation of an author with a PhD in metaphysics. He’s a private eye who not only reads crime novels to restore his equilibrium but also falls in love with a crime-fiction writer. “At my most cynical, I thought I was simply material for her next book,” he says. “A broken-down Irish PI, with a limp and a hearing-aid. Yeah, that would fly.”
Yes, Taylor is an absurd character, as ludicrous as any knight errant tilting at windmills, or Hercules hosing down the Augean stables of Galway, or Sisyphus flogging up and down his hill time and again.
Are we meant to take him at all seriously? Probably not. He is, after all, a bottomless well of compassion and rage, and as such he is an entirely preposterous creation in contemporary Ireland. Long may he run.
The Forced Redundancy Film Club
By Brian Finnegan
The journalist, pundit and author Brian Finnegan, editor of Gay Community News, has, for his first novel, The Forced Redundancy Film Club, turned his professional attention to chick lit. And why wouldn’t he? The most casual of glances through the weekly bestseller lists confirms that the genre is breathlessly alive and high-heel kicking, while literary fictions struggle for air like puppies in a weighted sack.
Finnegan’s novel, much like his decision to get on the popular-fiction dance floor, is smart or, as his publicist says, a “high-concept” debut. Efficiently tapping into the zeitgeist, Finnegan’s novel focuses on a bunch of thirtysomething Dublin-based colleagues thrown to the lions of penury, boredom and sexual misadventure when they are made redundant from their high-spec office jobs and end up getting plastered in a local hostelry before forming an ad-hoc film club.
The unlikely group of buffs consists of careerist Katherine, teetering alcoholic Martin, the ever-pregnant Lisa, little orphan Alice, and the most caustic and interesting of the litter, Jamie.
Jamie’s story is the least resolved and the most engaging: despite, or maybe because of, the unconditional love of his human-rights lawyer boyfriend and their apartment full of Ikea’s finest, he is drawn towards a dangerous and sexually explosive relationship with the violent and unpredictable Saeed.
Finnegan’s other characters accurately play the genre’s hopscotch, landing square-footed on home, their problems deftly and predictably resolved by the love of a good man, a good son, a good woman or a good birth mother and by sticking to the MiWadi bottle.
And therein lies the rub: Finnegan, sure-footed and confident, creates a sturdy read, but ultimately the limitations of the form, in which nice must always conquer nasty, can leave the reader listless.