Book Review: Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Title: Honor
Author: Thrity Umrigar
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 4, 2022
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this riveting and immersive novel, bestselling author Thrity Umrigar tells the story of two couples and the sometimes dangerous and heartbreaking challenges of love across a cultural divide.

Indian American journalist Smita has returned to India to cover a story, but reluctantly: long ago she and her family left the country with no intention of ever coming back. As she follows the case of Meena—a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man—Smita comes face to face with a society where tradition carries more weight than one’s own heart, and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of Smita’s own past. While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries in every way she can to right the scales. She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment. But the dual love stories of Honor are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves: Smita realizes she has the freedom to enter into a casual affair, knowing she can decide later how much it means to her.

In this tender and evocative novel about love, hope, familial devotion, betrayal, and sacrifice, Thrity Umrigar shows us two courageous women trying to navigate how to be true to their homelands and themselves at the same time.

Honor is a powerful, painful book — it’s impossible to put down, and yet left me feeling practically bruised by the trauma experienced by its characters.

In Honor, expat Smita returns to India after 20 years abroad to fill in for her best friend and fellow journalist while she recovers from an injury. Smita’s friend was covering a sensational trial: A Hindu woman, Meena, horribly disfigured by the fire that killed her Muslim husband, is suing her two brothers, the men responsible for the horrendous attack. If she wins, they could face life imprisonment — but even if she does win, Meena can never get back what she lost.

Meena’s story of life in a small village stuck in old oppressive traditions and belief systems is counter-balanced by Smita’s own experiences and memories, which unfold slowly over the course of the novel. Smita and her family relocated to the US when she was a teen, but we don’t learn the circumstances until late in the book. Still, we know that something bad happened, enough for Smita to have sworn never to return to her homeland, instead living an austere, independent life, traveling the globe to report on gender issues worldwide. Meena’s case is perhaps too close and personal for Smita. She’s outraged and furious, struggling to maintain her journalistic distance, all the while becoming more invested in Meena’s life and in her own growing connection to Mohan, the man who acts as her travel companion and protector as she journeys to Meena’s village.

The interviews with the men of the village are simply terrible to read — the bigotry, sexism, and cruelty is impossible to fully express. Meena, now living in her husband’s village with her mother-in-law, fares no better there. She’s blamed for her husband’s death, considered a burden and a curse, and lives a life of pain and suffering, brightened only by her young daughter, the only remnant of her dream of a life with her beloved husband.

Through flashback scenes, we see Meena’s quiet bravery as she defies her brother’s control to first take a factory job (thereby supporting her brothers), then falling in love with someone she never should have met. The story of Meena and Abdul’s romance is sweet but piercing — we know already that tragedy awaits the couple, and that love can’t save them.

By the end of this tragic novel, Smita comes to understand more about herself, her childhood, and her country, and also finds a new sense of purpose in the aftermath of the trial. The ending is as uplifting as such an awful story can be, but there is hope left, even after all the terrible events and experiences.

Meena’s story is haunting and makes the bigger impression, but Smita’s personal journey is inspiring and moving as well.

All in all, Honor is a deeply moving and upsetting look at the concept of honor, both in a more modern society and in a tradition-bound, repressive community. I can see why it was chosen as a Hello, Sunshine pick earlier this year — it would make a great book group book, with plenty to discuss and ponder.