It is 1974 on the island of Cyprus. Two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land, meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, who is Greek and Christian, and Defne, who is Turkish and Muslim, can meet, in secret, hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. This is where one can find the best food in town, the best music, the best wine. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its immoderate sorrows.
In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. This tree will witness their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and the tree will be there when the war breaks out.
Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. in life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.
It is that time of year again: the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is announced; the International Boker Prize – often more fresher, braver than the Booker – and the Carnegie Medal shortlist are all announced. Truly, book proze season and a chance to revisit those books I’ve bought but not yet read, or to bolster my tbr list! Not that it needs bolstering!
And The Island Of Missing Trees is exactly one of those: having loved 10 Minutes 38 Second in this Strange World, I had eagerly bought this novel a few months back but not got round to reading it! It’s appearance on The Women’s Prize Longlist prompted me to return to it.
And I am so glad I did! It is sublime: heart achingly sad, humane, gorgeously written, full of powerful characters.
The novel opens in the modern day and we see Ada, a teenager, in a familiar enough setting, an English school classroom. But Ada screams in it – a feral, bestiary, prolonged scream which
could have been the high shriek of a hawk, the soul-haunting howl of a wolf, the rasping cry of a red fox at midnight.
A scream equally humiliating and electrifying. It is never fully rationalised but behind that scream lies Ada’s mother’s recent death, the increasing distance in her relationship with her father, their estrangement from their family who are still living on Cyprus and didn’t even attend Ava’s mum’s funeral. From this starting point, Shafak introduces Meryem – Ada’s aunt and her mother’s sister – recently divorced and seeking to reforge a relationship with Ada and her father.
Shafak also propels us forty years or so into the past, where Ada’s parents meet as teenagers on Cyprus.
I knew a little – very little – about Cyprus before reading this novel: a vague awareness of its divisions, North and South, Greek and Turkish. And Shafak is so good in creating these settings: the landscapes where cultures meet, interact, conflict… I didn’t know – and feel I should have done – how brutally and how tragically that cultural division, exacerbated by colonial presence, descended into civil war. And Shafak was wonderful in building that tension and escalation: what was background, rumour and simmering explodes with shocking violence.
Kostas and Defne, who are destined to become Ada’s parents, are on opposite sides of that divide: Kostas is Greek and Christian, Defne. Turkish and Muslim. Even from the outset, this was a relationship that would have been disapproved of, would have scandalised the community, so Defne and Kostas meet in The Happy Fig, a tavern owned and run by Yiorgos and Yusuf, a beautifully depicted gay couple whose own love is even more taboo than Defne and Kostas;. This is the tavern in which and through which grows a fig tree.
We spend more time in Kostas’ company than Defne’s, and he was a gorgeously crafted character, sensitive to nature and to the trees, bats and songbirds that live on the island. Defne is more distant – we see her through Kostas’ eyes and through Meryem, her sister’s, eyes, through Ada’s memories – until we finally hear her voice directly, at the end of the novel.
Shafak is extraordinary in her sense of transformation in death, both here and in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds… – a sensitivity that, perhaps, echoes and is formed by Greek antiquity and classicism. It is hard to read a novel where the character Defne and the fig tree are so intimately entwined without hearing echoes of the myth of Apollo and Daphne – without the problematic sexuality. Echoes of Ovid, perhaps. But in Shafak’s hands, that metamorphosis is wonderfully, beautifully redemptive one.
For me, even though it is only the first novel I’ve read from the Prize longlist, I sincerely hope that it reaches the shortlist, and it would even be a worthy winner!
What I Liked
- The gorgeous language: this was one of those books which I have scribbled, highlighted, shared quotes and phrases with others. It is just wonderful.
- The Cyprus setting: the island where east meets west, where Turk meets Greek, where Christian meets Muslim, where the human world meets the natural.
- The translation of ethnic tensions into the kitchen and Meryem’s nationalistic cooking!
- Ada – troubled, strong and vibrant.
- The transformative nature of love, and the final chapter and revelation.