Novel set mainly in Pisa
September 2021 – The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, CYPRUS
1st September 2021
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, novel set in 1974 Cyprus and later 2010s North London.
If you haven’t read anything by Elif Shafak, then you are missing out. She is an extraordinary and unusual storyteller and can give a voice to people and in this case, a fig tree. This may sound rather debatable but hear me out. The fig tree observes, it is in many ways a useful construct to examine history and life but she imbues its narrative with a strength and perception that make it an incisive part of the story.
It is the second novel I have read where a fig tree is fundamental to the storyline and both offer instruction on how keep fig trees safe during the cooler winter months of the northern hemisphere – you carefully bury them in the soil. Check out The Fig Eater by Jody Shields, set in early 1900s Vienna
The fig tree is situated in North London, and came from a cutting brought over by Kostas from Nicosia and planted in its new home, where it observes the comings and goings of the people in the house and shares timely reflections on history and the nature of belonging. Kostas (a Greek Christian Cypriot) was courting a young woman, Defne (a Turkish Muslim Cypriot) back in the 1970s in Cyprus and many of their dates were in a restaurant called the Happy Fig, which referred to a tree growing int he heart of the premises. As you might expect, there are glorious descriptions of the multicultural food throughout the novel which add a piquancy that left me salivating. There is, too, a real sense of the island in terms of setting.
On 24 July 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus, and then again in August, and the country became partitioned with a UN monitored Green Line, which still divides the country today. It was given its moniker because the pen which was used to mark the line on a map contained green ink. Many people were displaced and had to leave everything they knew.
Kostas is now living in North London. His wife died just very recently and he is caring for his 16 year old daughter Ada (pronounced Adda).
There is insight into the partition (which makes it the only country in Europe left divided in modern day) and the attention to environmental and animal detail is just wonderful.
I never thought I would love a novel with a fig tree narrator and in the magical realism genre, it generally is not my thing. Had I perhaps paid more attention to the blurb I might have found myself sidelining it. But it is the inventiveness and quality of storytelling that will win over the most hardened sceptic. it is a mesmerising read, plain and simple and addresses so much about life and the nature of political upheaval and the ramifications on the human diaspora.
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