Honor is a book about a dangerous word. Honor should be about doing the right thing but it is often twisted into defining a person’s worth by how completely they control the women in their family. We all have heard of honor killings. Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, survived being shot for going to school. Lest we congratulate ourselves for not being Pakistan, three American women are killed every day by their husband or boyfriend. In India, Laxmi Agarwal survived an acid attack by a man she turned down for marriage and went on to be an activist against the patriarchal system in India. I think it is no accident that the main character’s last name is Agarwal.

Smita Agarwal was on vacation in the Maldives when her friend and colleague, Shannon, asked her to come to Mumbai while she recovers from an accident and surgery. She wants Smita to take over her story about Meena, a courageous survivor who took her brothers to court for setting fire to her home, disfiguring her and killing her husband. They are waiting for the judge’s ruling. Since it is in rural India, Shannon’s friend Mohan accompanies Smita to be her escort.

Meena is Hindu and her husban was Muslim and their marriage offended everyone, but her brothers were dishonored in their own eyes as well as the community. They did not effectively control their sister. They could only restore their honor by killing her and her husband. That she survived and has a child of this marriage remains a stain on their honor. They gleefully talk about killing her and the child.

This all reaffirms long-held resentment against India, even though she was born there. She and Mohan are attracted to each other but their disparate understanding and feelings about India are a sore spot between them. All they can do is wait for the verdict and what happens after.

I loved HonorThrity Umrigar excelled at creating a sense of place, not just the sights, sounds, and smells, but also the mood, the implacable menace of Meena’s village. The fearful ambivalence of her mother-in-law’s home, the serenity of Mohan’s home, and the vibrant chaos and contrasts of Mumbai. She also had the courage to disappoint us and foil our hopes and expectations.

Most of all, I love that she took on that word, honor. Like respect,  it has this dangerous reliance on other people to provide it. For many people, usually men, honor is not based on what they do but on how completely they dominate women. For many people, respect is not earned, but an expectation based on occupation or rank. How many people have been abused by police because the police felt disrespected? When will people learn that honor and respect comes from within, not from without?

I received an ARC from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.