It all begins with a stolen knockoff Birkin bag in Elif Shafak’s new novel, Three Daughters of Eve. Nazperi Nalbantoglu, or Peri to her friends, is enduring both the nightmarish bumper-to-bumper traffic in a crowded Istanbul street and the short-tempered comments of her teenage daughter Deniz.
Trying to make her way to an upscale dinner party held by a wealthy businessman and where her husband Adnan is waiting for her, Peri thinks fleetingly about life in Istanbul, about her duties as a wife and mother, and how different she had envisioned herself so many years ago.
Amid her reverie and the increasing traffic, Peri doesn’t see the tramp reaching in to steal her handbag from the backseat until it’s too late. But there is something in that bag that Peri treasures, a faded Polaroid of herself, two other girls and a man taken decades earlier in Oxford. Brushing aside her daughter’s protests, Peri gives chase to the tramp in an absolute refusal to allow that photo to be lost forever.
Shafak’s narrative fluctuates between Peri’s childhood, her college years at Oxford and the present, both in the incident with the tramp and then later, at the dinner party. What is revealed about Peri is that she is a true dichotomy. It’s very difficult to figure her out. Her actions oscillate between very meek to sometimes surprisingly aggressive. The truly absorbing part of the novel are the many debates sparked between the characters about religion, country, faith, God, love and feminism. In addition, Peri’s education at Oxford coincides with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 which makes the references to Islam and religion all the more relevant.
If this seems a little bit much to take on, it perhaps might be in some parts. The dialogues are by no means fluid in the sense that could be described as quick and to-the-point conversations. In fact, there is more third-person narrative than dialogue, which of course slows down the action and makes the novel seem terribly slow at times. But this is without a doubt a part of Shafak’s style, repeated in her some of her previous novels, The Forty Rules of Love, The Architect’s Apprentice and The Bastard of Istanbul.
As Peri reveals through flashbacks her years at Oxford, her budding friendship with two very different women and her growing admiration for Professor Azur, a controversial academic of divinity at Oxford whose course is much coveted and many times frowned upon by other scholars. This is when the novel truly begins, the story taking a deep turn into controversial themes like Islam and feminism, topics that Peri could never explore at leisure in Turkey with her deeply religious mother and proclaimed secular father.
The rather ambiguous point is Peri’s relationship with her husband. We can discern that it was perhaps a marriage borne out of convenience going by Peri’s own words that what she feels for Adnan is a deep gratitude, but that “gratitude is not love.” The nature of their union is not explored sufficiently to draw a conclusion, but in later events we can somewhat see that Peri is genuinely fond of her husband and is generally content by his side, if only a bit unsatisfied. But this has more to do with Peri than it does with Adnan.
Shafak saves the best for last, a secret that explains why Peri left Oxford with an unfinished degree. At the businessman’s dinner party, Peri is forced to remember everything she had thought forgotten when she is taunted by the wife of another guest to speak of her Oxford years and about Professor Azur. Later, when a psychic draws three figures on a napkin, Peri makes the choice of setting the past to right, knowing that this is the only way to finally forgive herself and the one other person she holds responsible for the scandal that broke them, and a terrorist attack is what finally seems to seal all the events together.
Poetry isn’t as explored in this novel as it is in some of Shafak’s earlier works. However it gives a wide glimpse into Eastern culture in the chapters pertaining to Peri’s childhood. Arranged marriages, family honor, the shaming of women and the brutal treatment of political prisoners are all explored in Three Daughters of Eve. Readers certainly receive a broad view of all the facets of Turkish society and its people.
Three Daughters of Eve is not a comfortable or cozy read. The narrative is slow and dialogues at times can be repetitive, heavy, and sometimes pretentious in their desire to seem overly intellectual. But it makes a definitely profound observation on the meaning of religion and how it reaches into so many aspects of life, including love.
Shafak’s descriptions of Istanbul and of Turkey in general are so vivid and alive that the reader can almost hear the honking of the horns of bottleneck traffic and the smells of rich food served at the businessman’s party, or the acrid smell of fear and hate emanated by the tramp that steals Peri’s purse. It is a novel of current events that link East and West, and this alone makes this worth reading.