This month our chosen book is The island of Missing Trees by the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022. It is about the Cypriot civil war and how the trauma of such a war imperils future generations as well as uprooting ordinary lives. It is also a Romeo and Juliet story of the passionate love affair between Kostas, a Greek Cypriot and Defne a Turkish Cypriot and it centres on the story how their daughter Ada comes to terms with the past she has never known.
Quiet, rather withdrawn Ada is sitting in class one day when she starts uncontrollably screaming, a breakdown that is attributed to unresolved grief over the death of her Mother one year earlier. Her Father is loving but wrapped up in his own grief and academic study of trees and it is when her Turkish aunt Meryon arrives to visit that Ada learns about the past and begins to accept and take pride in her heritage. For Meryon Is an exuberant woman steeped in traditional beliefs and customs, including food and the narrative moves back in time to the doomed love affair of her parents, their separation and eventual exile to live in North London.
Shafak has an unusual device for bringing the different narratives and themes together. At the heart of the novel is a fig tree which serves both as narrator and commentator. This a fig tree first grew in the village taverna, a silent witness to the illicit meetings between the lovers as well as conveying the beauty, the liveliness, the food and eventually the doomed relationship between the two men who owned the taverna. When Kostas and Defne come to England Kostas rescues the fig tree, now ravaged and dying from the war and brings her to London where he lovingly tends her, burying her each winter in the garden and bringing her out each Spring. Thus the fig tree is able to comment on what is happening in the present as well as remembering the beauties and the horrors she has left in Cyprus. The fig tree is also part of an interdependent ecosystem, and she communicates with insects, animals and other trees who often inform her of what is going on elsewhere. Some of this may stretch our credibility but Shafak has researched well how trees do communicate with one another and even how some kind of generational memory is built up. The ending of the book makes the significance of the fig tree clear.
We, as well as other readers enjoyed the descriptions as Shafak brings to life the island for its sights, smells and texture. The division across the centre is a scar that contrasts starkly with the natural beauty. It was interesting to learn more of the civil war which some of us remembered or knew people who knew people who had been affected. The way that much of the narrative came through the fig tree and other creatures filtered to some extent, the horrors of the war: there was tragedy but not explicit detail.
It was a novel with a message about love, roots, and tradition. We enjoyed reading it but there was also a feeling that it was sometimes too didactic. Nevertheless, I think most people would find it an enjoyable read.
Our next book is Oh William by Elizabeth Strout