How do you tackle the subject of illegal and widespread ‘honour’ killings without yourself retreating into a shell of no more than anger and righteousness? Awais Khan has produced a stunner of a novel, with subtlety and warmth sharing page space with scenes of heartbreaking cruelty. No Honour is excellent, with contemporary relevance that stretches far from Punjab.
A horrific tale of ‘honour’-inspired murder takes up the first six pages. If the whole novel is going to be like this, we think, we are in for a rough and relentless ride. But we’re immediately introduced to Jamil and Abida – a village butcher and his 16 year-old daughter – two characters of complexity whom we quickly learn to root for. Jamil’s trying to marry Abida off to the awful-sounding son of the local pir, but Abida has other ideas. A stand-off and a kick-back to the corrupt local police save Abida from going the same way as the first village girl, but when she flees to Lahore we realise that while the village power-holders will kill you if you step out of line, those in the city have their own reasons to keep you alive.
This exploration of tradition and transition, to show us that rampant injustice happens in the city, is not quite the balance that we had in mind. And No Honour never patronises its characters nor us by making us feel a well-meaning but ultimately lazy condescension for them. It’s too multi-faceted and multi-layered for that. Indeed, at times there’s a real feel of an adventure story as Jamil battles his way through the Great Wen of Lahore. There are scenes of quick thinking and of action and we experience the city’s full onslaught on the senses.
There’s an obvious contrast between the assumed agency that can be expressed by Jamil and Abida (she is sold multiple times and is effectively a slave) – but Abida’s is a battle of the spirit in a domestic setting and no less important for that. It is Jamil’s mother, not the culture of the community, that has inspired him to act. Khan is reminding us that communities can change, but it is down to the people within them to do something about it.
The village may be changing, by the end, but why hasn’t it until now? It is only when the power of the pir is challenged by a greater power from outside the village, that change is possible. But historic power structures, cemented by the reluctant or complicit assent of the powerless, are only part of the picture. I mentioned in my review of The Doll the fear of chaos and here it is again; Khan’s one (but important) nod that allows the villagers in general a chance for redemption. As for the city, different answers are needed, though Khan shows us one set of those.
Despite closing chapters that do their best to give us a series of endings that are satisfying and encouraging, this is not an easy book to read – given its subject matter, nor should it be – but it is especially important, not just in the context of the heavy hand of everyday oppression and institutionalised and cultural misogyny in South Asia, but for everyone. There is a challenge from Khan to all of us about our own roles in bringing about change in our own societies, with obvious links to the debates about allyship that have raged for the last year or so. That is not to water down and generalise the specific issue of ‘honour’ killing that Khan describes: it is not our role to take the light that Khan is shining on this practice and to divert it elsewhere. The challenge for us is to work out our own response, using our own spirit and resilience.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.