Honor by Thrity Umrigar
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 4, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Cultural
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When Smita arrives in Mumbai she thinks she’s there to help a good friend undergoing surgery. Otherwise, even as a global journalist, she has never returned to the country her family left when she was a teenager. Now, in Thrity Umrigar’s new novel, Honor, she’s forced to confront her past while coming face-to-face with another young woman horribly impacted by the same forces in the present.
Meena is the other narrator in Honor and she is Smita’s opposite. From a small rural village, she is illiterate and desperately poor. Her world is controlled by men, namely her brothers. That is until she falls in love with and marries a Muslim. As Hindus this brings such shame to her brothers, they set her home on fire, killing her husband and disfiguring and maiming her. Meena now lives with her mother-in-law who blames her for her son’s death. With no resources or allies she still makes the extraordinary decision to bring charges against her brothers, despite the police having no interest in the case.
It turns out Smita’s friend doesn’t need her help in Mumbai, but wants her to cover the story’s verdict when it’s announced. This forces Smita to leave the relative security of a major cosmopolitan city for the utterly unfamiliar world of villages, where life is still lived as it was 20 years ago. Religion and the patriarchy rules, corruption is rampant all of which breeds violence; most often in the name of honor and most often perpetrated against women.
Smita travels with Mohan, a Mumbai native, who, as a man, offers the protection and language skills she needs. At the same time, she chafes against the implication that she can’t handle the situation on her own. Mohan’s love of India grates on her as well so much of their time in the car is spent sparring over her distaste for her homeland. Her arguments are reinforced by the behavior of the many men they come in contact with who will not let her register for a hotel room or will not speak to her directly, but they are contradicted by Mohan who shows her respect and pushes back against her treatment.
All of this could make Honor feel like a one-note, polarizing novel about the evils of fundamentalism in any faith and East versus West, but Umrigar is too gifted a writer to settle on the surface. Instead, as the novel progresses, she uses the lives and backgrounds of two women who are foreign to each other to illustrate the many true meanings of honor, from a father making a shocking decision for his family, to the promise made between women, to the courtship of Meena and Abdul, with its tender propriety and the depth of his respect for her.
Honor blends plot with character in a way to satisfy both readers who like more literary fiction and those who want more movement. Umrigar provides nuanced insight into two very different mindsets—Indian and American, but in a way that exposes the similarities we may not want to see. The same goes for the way she uses the word honor. One small word, but freighted with so much meaning and so easily abused. The brutality that transpires in the village is all done in the name of honor, but makes a mockery of the word. It’s nothing more than generations of unchecked male ego.
It’s in the uneducated, unsophisticated Meena that Umrigar illuminates the true meaning of honor. Both Smita and Meena fully occupy their stories, but even though Meena is a simple woman I found her narrative to be the most profound. Her moral code and inner strength are extraordinary. The intensity of emotion in Honor flows through her and off the page making her character and Honor a novel I’ll not soon forget.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest review.*