Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve is the story of Peri, a wealthy housewife in Istanbul. Peri is on her way to a party with her teenage daughter, Deniz, when her bag is snatched. She horrifies Deniz by chasing down the thief, desperate to get back the bag and its contents, and in doing so she unleashes a flood of memories that she thought she had left in the past. This kicks off a dual narrative story that takes place simultaneously in one evening, the night of the party, and over nearly two decades, beginning with Peri’s childhood in Istanbul. In order to review this in any kind of detail, it’s necessary to spoil what’s so precious in that handbag – it happens towards the start of the novel and informs everything else, but there is a lot of build-up to that moment – so if you want to go into this knowing nothing at all, stop reading here!
Okay, for everyone who stuck around: in the handbag is a photograph of a much younger Peri – a student-aged Peri – with two other young female students, Shirin and Mona. They are standing with a young professor, Azur, outside the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. Deniz, when they retrieve the photo, is astonished to find that her mother (who is now a corporate housewife) studied at Oxford. She asks Peri why this has never come up before, which of course sends her mother down memory lane. We find out fairly quickly that Peri didn’t graduate and that there was some kind of trauma during her time at Oxford. The details are revealed gradually over the course of both timelines, not coming fully into focus until near the end of the novel, but it’s apparent that whatever happened had some kind of connection with the people in the photo.
I absolutely loved this book, which is told almost entirely from Peri’s point of view, though in third person throughout. It is a story about many things – some of which I can’t go into, because spoilers – but at the forefront is Peri’s feeling of being stuck or confused in terms of what she believes. Raised by a devoutly Muslim mother and a mostly-secular father, Peri grows up in an environment where God and faith are a source of tremendous tension. Peri adores her father, which blinds her to his faults, and gets frustrated with her mother – but both her parents are much more three-dimensional than she is able to see as a child or teenager. I am always impressed when a writer can pull off the trick of staying in one character’s (biased and incomplete) point of view, while also giving the reader ways to see the other characters in a more nuanced and interesting way.
Peri hopes to escape the constant conflict of her parents’ unhappy marriage at university, but her two closest friends, Mona and Shirin, echo it in many ways. Mona is a devout Muslim, but Shirin, who along with her family fled Islamic authoritarianism in Iran, actively despises young Muslim women, especially those who cover their heads. I’m going to be honest, the one time I nearly abandoned this book was right after Shirin was introduced. It’s entirely believable that awkward, quasi-conservative Peri would be drawn to someone this ostentatiously, self-consciously obnoxious. That doesn’t make her any pleasanter to read about. I’m glad I persevered. After a couple of chapters the amount of Shirin decreased to a manageable dose, and while I don’t think I ever actually warmed to her, I did come to understand her purpose in the novel. She, Mona, and Azur are all essential parts of Peri’s story.
Essentially, this is a story about how the adult, middle-aged, upper-middle-class Peri became who she is, and the people whose stories intersected with hers in the process. That sounds a bit trite, but actually it’s anything but – it is brutal and funny and insightful. Rather like the other Shafak novel I’ve read, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, this takes a premise that sounds fairly mundane, and uses it to great effect. There is a smidge of what could be termed the fantastical or mystical in the novel, but there’s enough ambiguity about what’s causing it for readers to make their own minds up, so don’t let that put you off if it otherwise sounds appealing. I also found that the dual timeline was handled really well – so often the problem with dual timeline novels, at least for me, is that one timeline is much more interesting than the other. In this case, though, I enjoyed both very much, and it was easy to see how the earlier timeline informed the later one.
This is one of those books that I think I will be thinking about in three months, or six. I don’t think I’ll really know what I made of it until I’ve had some time to ruminate – by which point, of course, all the details will have faded from my memory too much to review it. It’s a completely riveting story, told with great skill, and I enjoyed it very much while I was reading. At the same time, there were many threads left dangling at the end of the story – things that were completely unaddressed. I think this is intentional, and I can see the good narrative and artistic reasons for it, but it annoyed me as a reader.
One final thing – when I was writing the review, almost every blurb I saw for Three Daughters of Eve contained very significant spoilers for things that don’t happen until quite a long way through! I think this is a good enough book to survive spoilers, but I’m also glad I went into it with almost no idea what was going to happen. If you fancy giving this a try, consider not reading the blurb before you start.
Side note, not relevant to the review as a whole: I was baffled by some of the goings-on at Oxford. I’ve been in and around universities for the past thirteen years, and much of what was happening seemed rather difficult to swallow. I do know, though, that Oxford and Cambridge consider themselves to be Built Different in terms of whether they have to follow the rules that other, more plebian institutions do. I’ve also spent my whole career wandering between professional and STEM-based subjects, so it’s possible that the humanities are different. Basically, this book made me grateful that I was not able to follow my childhood/teenage ambition of studying classics or ancient history at Oxford. I think I would have really hated it!
I haven’t read anything by this author but I keep hearing excellent things and this sounds like it could be a good place to start.
I think this would be a great place to start! I’d love to hear your perspective on it, because I find the way Shafak writes about tensions within faith groups really interesting (though very different to my own experiences and beliefs, obviously).
I’ve read a couple of books recently that feature that faith tension within families and it’s been interesting to see the similarities and differences to my own experiences, even with different religions. So that definitely intrigues me here too!
I’m delighted to picture a woman, a mother, taking off after a handbag thief while her daughter stands there stunned, or perhaps embarrassed? If my mom took off after someone who stole her purse, I would wait patiently for her return with the purse.
It is a great mental image! To be fair to Deniz, though, it’s been clearly established in the preceding sentences that theft of this nature is very common, that this is not how people react to it *ever*, and that she has some reason to fear for her mother’s safety while she’s chasing down the thief. So it is partly the teenage thing of “mum, don’t, it’s embarrassing!”, but it’s more complicated than that as well.
I’m intrigued! I actually have this one on my Kindle but removed it from the TBR after the talking trees debacle of her last book. But you don’t mention talking trees at all! Am I safe to assume that all the narrative voices in this one emanate from humans? If so, you may have convinced me to resurrect it…
Yes, all the narrative voices are from humans! There is a fantastical/mystical element but it doesn’t crop up very often and there are plausible reasons that it could have a prosaic explanation. No talking trees at all. I hope you enjoy it if you read it!