What is honor? Is it your value as a human being? Is it your worth in relation to your actions? Is it the weight with which other’s view you? Thrity Umrigar seeks, not to answer this question, but to pose it in a way that forces her readers to interrogate its meaning in her latest novel by the very same name: Honor.
Honor begins with a newspaper clipping: a woman and her husband have been burned alive for their interfaith marriage. A marriage between a Hindu and Muslim is nothing but dishonorable in their small Indian village. The woman, Meena, and her unborn child, though, survive the burning. Backed by a lawyer fighting to change the corrupt legal system in India, Meena presses charges against her two brothers—the men who burned her husband to protect their honor and hers.
Next, we meet Smita. An American journalist who was born in India and hasn’t returned since she left at fourteen, Smita is suddenly summoned to the country by her coworker who is stationed in India. At first, Smita thinks her friend and coworker simply needs some help recovering from an emergency surgery, and Smita, though hesitant to return to the place of her birth, pushes her apprehension aside for her friend. When Smita arrives though, it quickly becomes clear that her coworker called Smita to India for a very different purpose: to take over coverage of Meena’s story. Smita is thrown into a whirlwind of emotion as she attempts to navigate not only Meena’s heartbreaking story and the inherent issues they illuminate for her homeland but also Smita’s own deep-seated traumas that lay hidden in that same land.
Misogyny and patriarchy, class and privilege, racism and toxic masculinity are only a few of the major themes that Umrigar explores in Honor. She poses tough questions such as: are people born evil or are they made evil by their circumstances, by their station in life, by the way they are treated and made to feel dishonorable? Umrigar doesn’t by any means hide her stance on many of these questions and issues, and she often flat out tells the reader what she thinks is right and wrong, but not always. By the end of the novel, we are still left with an elusive feeling as to who was “good” and who was “bad.” We hate Meena’s brothers for what they’ve done, and yet that feeling is somewhat challenged when we learn that the brothers too were pressured to fulfill a task they thought to be handed down by the gods. Umrigar clearly paints a complicated picture not only of India and the issues illuminated by the country’s policies and practices, but issues that Smita points out exist everywhere.
Part drama, part romance, part social justice call-to-action, Honor is a novel that quickly draws you in and doesn’t leave much room for dawdling. While the plot and backstories of the characters often feel a bit canned, this somehow doesn’t detract from the engaging nature of the novel. It works because Umrigar sets Honor up in such a way that we are compelled to seek out the why, not the what of the novel. Why did it happen? Why did it have to happen? Why were these characters compelled to make the choices they made? And while the answer seems to lie somewhere in the title of the book, still the reader asks “Why? Why is that honor? Why is that what honor means to him, to her, to you?”
Slated for release by Algonquin books in January of 2022, Honor by Thrity Umrigar is an important and deeply tragic book that asks all the right questions of humanity.
You can preorder a copy of Honor by Thrity Umrigar from your local independent bookstore.
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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.