Torn between atheist father and Muslim mother

In the beginning, Nazperi Nalbantoglu appears to be an ordinary Turkish housewife stuck in a typical gridlock of Istanbul traffic with her caustic teenage daughter, on their way to a dinner party at a wealthy businessman's home.

Very quickly, though, an attempted rape and robbery jolt Nazperi out of her comfortable life and remind her of a deeply buried scandal from her past.

It is a shocking beginning to Three Daughters Of Eve, a novel which is, for the most part, a philosophical one.

Nazperi - called Peri throughout the book - is deeply insecure and, from the start, Elif Shafak - the Turkish author of 10 novels, including The Bastard Of Istanbul and The Architect's Apprentice - parallels Peri's crisis of identity with Turkey's own.

  • FICTION

  • THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE

    By Elif Shafak

    Viking/Paperback/ 365 pages/$28.54/ Books Kinokuniya

    3/5 stars

Peri is in a constant state of moral paralysis, unable to make a decision, to pick a side or to choose a course of action.

As a result, she lives her life in melancholic limbo between her atheist father and devout Muslim mother; between her home, tradition and family in Istanbul and an intellectual university education at Oxford; and later, between the segregated chatter of men and women at the businessman's dinner.

Even the narrative structure of the novel, which jumps discordantly between Peri's childhood in Istanbul, her university days at Oxford and a dinner party in 2016, accentuates the uncomfortable schism Peri feels within herself.

Family arguments, intellectual quagmires and violence Peri encounters echo the clash of perspectives which exist in modern Turkey and few authors can immerse the reader in contemporary Turkish society, particularly as experienced by women, like Shafak, who displays an exceptional knack for social nuance and political commentary throughout the book.

Unfortunately, it seems as though her philosophical inquiry and political message progress at the expense of the narrative.

Though the crux of the novel is meant to take place in Oxford - where Peri befriends Shirin, an Iranian-born secularist, and Mona, a pious Egyptian-American Muslim, whose clear views on religion propel her into the classroom of a charismatic professor and his controversial study of God - her relationships and life there feel superficial. Their friendship and, ultimately, Peri's moral crisis are not quite believable.

Much more compelling is Peri's relationship with her family and her parents, in particular. It is this uneasy, at times openly hostile dynamic which most clearly demonstrates the deep fissures of Turkey's society, Peri's inner conflict and eventually her willingness to challenge both sides. These scenes of modern family ties and social reflection are where Peri, and the novel, really shine.

If you liked this, read: Minaret by Leila Aboulela (Bloomsbury, 2005, $19.02, Books Kinokuniya), about a woman who grows up privileged and secular in Sudan, but whose political exile in London and the challenges she faces in Western society draw her deeper into the comforting arms of the Muslim community.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Torn between atheist father and Muslim mother'. Print Edition | Subscribe