Review: Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Şafak
By Merve Pehlivan
“It produces in me the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else.”
Roland Barthes – The Pleasure of the Text
There are books you can’t put down: delightful page-turners that take you on a thrilling rollercoaster ride, devoured in one sitting. Then there are books that interrupt your reading, not out of boredom or disinterest but due precisely to the richness that brims over the words on the page. You lift your head up from the book, and it is in your own musings that the story continues to unfold. I usually seek this latter experience.
I had the same motivation when I set out to read Elif Şafak’s latest novel, Three Daughters of Eve. The book centers around a female main character, Peri, who goes to a fancy dinner party among a moneyed group of people in Istanbul. It doesn’t look like a milieu she had dreamed of ending up in; something gnaws at her throughout the night. The story then moves back in time to introduce two other “daughters of Eve” who, like Peri, were students in Oxford: one of them a pious Muslim from Egypt and the other an atheist from Iran. Peri hangs in the middle between the two – doubtful about espousing either of their convictions.
Although sometimes set in a historical backdrop, Elif Şafak’s novels tackle contemporary issues including identity, feminism and multiculturalism. Şafak urges the reader to see beyond parochial preconceptions with her disparate characters, some of whose stories defy national historiography. (In 2006, her novel The Bastard of Istanbul was taken to court on charges of “insulting Turkishness.” The book mentions the Armenian genocide.) Her latest Three Daughters of Eve has religion at its core, a topic that remains relevant in present-day Turkey. Made with good intentions, reflecting the author’s worldview that celebrates diversity above all other virtues, the book nevertheless fails to live up to its promises. What could have been a subtle narrative with compelling characters comes across as an arrangement of laudable ideas and sweeping observations about, among others, “male types in the Middle East.”
The novel endeavors to challenge short-sighted dichotomies about God, religion and religious people. But these efforts remain labored as it often looks like it’s the voice of the author and her idealism and not the characters that convey the plot. The very first paragraph of the novel gives us a glimpse of what will be a running thread throughout the novel. An interior monologue that starts with an intention to kill someone very quickly dissolves into the question: “Isn’t Turkey ultimately the land of unrealized potentials?” Similarly, the book often zooms out of the inner motives of characters ahead of a development that could potentially advance the plot, only to offer a wholesale view of the macro-culture they live in. It’s as if the wider sociocultural setting takes center stage, while characters serve as elements studied and positioned to justify ideas associated with that setting. Statements beginning with “In a country where…” refer to Turkey, while in some cases the scope is even larger: “Male heart in Eastern lands…” An assertion with considerable geographical ambition, echoing Edward Said’s description of orientalism.
Orientalist representation doesn’t have to be about snake charmers, lascivious women or the harem. The very term orientalism, putting half of the world–the East- in a single bucket, obliterates nuances. It also doesn't have to be politically motivated or condescending. In the case of Three Daughters of Eve, what evokes orientalist discourse is the lack of subtlety, the mass assumptions about and contrived polarity among characters. The back cover of the book says of the protagonists: “Şirin, Peri and Mona, they were the most unlikely of friends. They were the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused.” Peri is in exactly the same position at home: “The issue of faith and identity dropped in the Nalbantoğulları house like an unexpected meteor, dividing the family into two camps.” The father is a materialist and the mother a devout Muslim. The younger son Hakan ends up nationalist and religious while the elder Umut grows up to be a Marxist. What’s left to Peri is the middle ground of confusion. What we need to know about their irreconcilable ways of thinking is given in a long list of books they read and pictures of Che Guevara, Gramsci and Marx in Umut’s room. Even metaphors cannot escape this sharp demarcation between characters. Selma, the religious mother, sees a scantily clad woman in England and thinks: “…a low-cut deeper than the chasm between her and her husband.” How what seems like a rare and troubling view to a pious woman is immediately associated with an abstract image is another question.
Miscellany is another aspect of the novel that reflects a colorful vision at the expense of credibility. Mensur, the father of the main character, is joined by “one or two friends” at a dinner table at home. They happen to know how to sing in a mosaic of languages, all of the six major ones that have thrived in Asia Minor for centuries: Turkish, Kurdish, Zaza, Greek, Armenian and Ladino. In Oxford University, a class on God has nine students, each of them with a distinct background in religion (Atheist, Mormon, Jew, Shamanist, Catholic, Muslim etc.). Not a single one of the students shares a similar story with a classmate. In both cases, mere happenstance cannot seem to account for what looks like a calculated multicultural picture.
Elif Şafak dedicates her book to the women of Turkey: “Those resolute, brave, loving women from all walks of life who cannot join one another in ‘sisterhood’.” This is a concern and an ideal I deeply share as a Turkish woman. But from a reader’s perspective, I could not take Barthesian pleasure in the novel, openings that leave questions in the mind and sustain the reading experience. The voice of the author comes to the fore more than the story it means to tell.
 Said, Edward, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Merve is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul. She is also the host and founder of Spoken Word Istanbul and Spoken Word Turkçe, which you can find out more about: @SpokenWordIstanbul