Sunday 24 December 2023


 IF CHRISTMAS TREES COULD TALK (the revised version December 2023)

By Maggie Knutson

As a late December sun was gracefully sinking below the village church opposite their cosy little cottage, Edith and Isabel were putting the final touches to their Christmas tree. 

“That looks grand,” Edith said, and she gave her sister an affectionate hug. 

“Now we've got to see this from outside,” Isabel urged and despite the cold, they rushed out to have a look.

 They were pleased with what they saw: the tree nestling prettily in the window alcove of their front room. 

“If anyone was passing by,” Isabel asked, “what would our tree tell them about us?”

“Well,” Edith deliberated, “ the occupants have wonderfully artistic taste and . . . ”

“ . . . don't like hoovering,” Isabel added, “because the tree is artificial!” 

The two giggled like school-children as they made their way inside.

“I never thought I'd be happy again after Henry died,” Edith confided in her sister. 

“Nor me with Norman,” Isabel sighed, and the two sisters shared a sad moment remembering their much loved husbands. 

It was Isabel who broke the mood. “This is our chance of a new start and it's going to be just fine and dandy. So come on, let's have supper and afterwards we're going to do some detective work.”

“Detective work?” Edith asked, intrigued by the suggestion.

“We're going to wrap up warmly and take a walk around the village,  unashamedly window-gazing to guess what other people's Christmas trees tell us about them.”

Edith chuckled. “Now that sounds a lot of fun . . .  just as long as we don't get arrested as potential burglars!”

“Two senior citizens taking an evening stroll?” Isabel queried. “I very much doubt it.  Although,” she added mischievously, “stranger things have happened.”

Meanwhile, three doors away, Beth was just taking the Christmas cake out of the oven when Leo stomped into the kitchen. 

“I don't believe it,” he grumbled. “You know how this tree is supposed to keep its needles on. Well, it jolly well doesn't.

“I've just taken the webbing off and most of the needles fell onto the floor, so now the tree's practically bare.”

Beth placed the cake carefully on the cooling rack and turned to face her irate husband. 

“Oh dear, let's have a look,” she said, lacing her arm around Leo's waist.  

As soon as they walked into the front room, Beth started to laugh. “You're right, it looks as if the tree's been dive-bombed by a crazy bird.”

Leo began to see the funny side too. “As soon as I touched it, what looked like spiky green snow hurtled downwards, and now we've got a green forest on our new carpet.”

“I'm sure the garden centre will change it,” Beth reasoned.  “Let's leave it here overnight and you can take it back tomorrow.”

“What would I do without you?” Leo said affectionately, kissing his wife on the top of her head. 

“I dread to think,” she teased. “Now come and have a look at my Christmas cake. I think it's going to be my best yet.”

Having been fortified by Edith's steak and kidney pudding, Isabel and Edith strolled around the village arm-in-arm. 

Most people had their Christmas trees in their front rooms so the sisters had plenty to assess. 

“This is such fun,” Edith said as they came full circle back to their own street. “What a good idea this was of yours, Isabel. Don't all these beautiful trees come into their own when it's dark outside. The village looks quite magical.

“And what a surprise,” she added. “Just like snowflakes, every Christmas tree is different.”

“Yes,” Isabel replied, “although I can definitely see a pattern emerging.”

Edith laughed. “You might be retired now, Isabel, but once a teacher always a teacher. So go on, tell me about these patterns.”

“First we have the neat and tidy trees with just the right number of decorations. They tell us that their owners are very organised with everything in its right place. If they have children, they certainly don't rule the roost.

“Then there are the trees brimming over with home-made decorations and smothered with tinsel. These are obviously family homes. Untidy and noisy, but full of love.

“Next are the small artificial trees with a minimum of decorations, rather like ours. These are people who don't like a lot of bother at Christmas . . . ”

“ . . . or,” Edith chuckled, “Senior Citizens like us, so they're bound to be very nice people.” 

“And lastly,” Isabel said, with some irritation in her voice, “there are the trees with flashing lights, which make me feel quite giddy. 

“The people inside are very thoughtless. They forget that they aren't the only ones to see their trees, and not everyone likes flashing lights.”

“That's a bit harsh,” Edith responded, and then, after a pause, “but very true.”

“I think we've had a most productive walk,” Isabel said, “but now it's time to head home and back into the warmth.”

But the two sisters stopped short when they reached Leo and Beth's home, just a few cottages away from their own.

“Oh dear,” said Isabel. “This is a most unusual tree and it certainly doesn't fit into any of my categories. 

“It looks like it was once a Christmas tree, but there are hardly any pine needles on it and absolutely no sign of any decorations.”

“Perhaps they'll decorate the tree later,” Edith suggested, “although they'll find it difficult to find anything to hang their decorations on.”

“Quite so,” Isabel said. “I think we deserve a large mug of hot chocolate after all our detective work.” 

“Perhaps with a dribble of brandy?” Edith suggested. “It is Christmas after all.”

The next day, a jubilant Leo arrived home from the garden centre and headed straight for the back of the cottage, carrying a brand new Christmas tree. 

Beth saw him from the kitchen window and popped out to greet him. “I see you had a successful trip,” she said.

“I did indeed.” Leo said. “They couldn't have been nicer. They gave me this tree and suggested I stand it in a bucket of water and leave it over-night outside. 

“Since there'll be a frost tonight, I'll put it in the back porch so at least it has some protection.”

“What will we do with the skeleton tree?” Beth asked.

“It's going by the dustbin at the side of the cottage,” Leo said firmly, “so we don't have to look at it. The garden centre said that they'll pick up both trees in January. 

“I was very lucky,” he added. “This was the last tree they had left.”

As Leo dealt with both trees, Beth topped her Christmas cake with a rich layer of golden marzipan. 

Then she went outside again and hugged her husband. “I couldn't be happier,” she murmured, breathing in the comforting smell of his jumper which was infused with the fresh smell of pine. 

She looked up at him, her eyes shining with excitement. “It's our first Christmas in our new home and it's all going so well. Apart, of course, from the tree!”

That evening, Edith and Isabel took another stroll around the village before settling down for some festive evening television. Passers-by exchanged greetings and the two sisters were beginning to feel less like newcomers.

But when they came to Leo and Beth's cottage, they stopped in dismay.

“This is ridiculous!” Isabel exclaimed, as they stared at the empty front room and the abandoned Christmas tree outside next to a bin. “Who in their right mind would do such a thing?” 

“Deary me,” Edith said with a sigh. “I do hope everything's alright.”

The next afternoon, Leo took the new tree into the front room and gingerly took the protective netting off. He breathed a big sigh of relief. 

“Beth,” he called, “this tree looks to be okay. The needles are most definitely staying on.”

“Good,” Beth replied as she applied stiff white icing sugar onto the cake. 

But then she heard a wailing noise which had her rushing into the front room, fearful that Leo had seriously hurt himself. 

“Are you alright, Leo?” she cried, but then she stopped in her tracks. The tree was tilting at a dangerous angle with Leo desperately hanging onto it to prevent it toppling over. 

“The trunk is too thick to stay in the tripod,” he gasped, exhausted by the effort he was exerting.

“Lean it against the window,” Beth suggested. 

“Good thinking,” he replied, and with some careful manoeuvring he managed to do just that and was able to let the tree go.

Beth stood by his side and the two surveyed the scene.

“It looks like a ship's mast in a storm,” Beth said. “We really aren't having much luck with our trees.”

Leo started to grin. “Maybe not but I'm not going to let this one get the better of me. I'll tackle it tomorrow when I'm not so dog-gone tired.”

There was a full moon as Isabel and Edith embarked upon their now regular evening walk. It was like a friendly face beaming down at them and they felt full of Christmas good will. 

But when they reached Leo and Beth's cottage, that warm, cheery feeling evaporated.

“This really does take the biscuit, Edith,” Isabel grumbled. “That's definitely a Christmas tree in their front room but it's leaning against the window and, I might add, without decorations.”

“Perhaps whoever lives here is an artist,” Edith speculated. “One of those modern ones who like to make a dramatic statement.”

“Or a lunatic,” Isabel retorted. “It's making me feel quite unsettled. What we need is a hot chocolate with a hearty dose of brandy. That will certainly do the trick, but I hardly dare think about what we'll see here tomorrow.”

The next day was Christmas Eve. Whilst Leo was cutting the tree trunk so that it fitted snugly into the tripod, Beth lovingly positioned a small Santa on a sleigh, surrounded by holly, on the top of her cake. 

Then together they hung little wooden Christmas figures evenly around the tree. Leo wound a simple string of white lights over the branches and, finally, right at the top of the tree, Beth placed a radiant angel in white and gold with a silver star above her head.

“Simple but beautiful,” was Beth's verdict. “And we've done it, we've actually finished our tree just in time for Christmas.”

That evening Isabel and Edith were beaming with delight as they looked upon the transformed Christmas tree.

“It's stunning,” Edith said, feeling more than a little emotional. 

“Who'd have believed it?” Isabel murmured softly. “It's perfect.”

At that very moment, Leo opened the front door.

“Can I help you?” he asked, perhaps a little sharper than he intended.

“Oh dear,” Edith replied, embarrassment flushing from her neck into her face.

“We didn't mean to be rude looking into your room. We live a few doors away and we were admiring your beautiful Christmas tree. Those little figures are exquisite. We've never seen anything like them before.” 

Now it was Leo's turn to feel embarrassed. “That's so kind of you,” he said, a smile replacing the frown. 

“We bought them at a Christmas market in Winchester. They are rather special, aren't they. But we've had a devil of a job with our Christmas trees. Thankfully, we got this one ready in time.”

“Is that so,” Isabel uttered innocently.

Beth was now at the front door.

“Did I hear nice things about our tree?”

“It is truly beguiling,” Edith said with passion.

“Why don't you come inside and try out my Christmas cake?” Beth suggested. “And perhaps a sherry to go with it?”

“Good idea,” Leo agreed, basking in all the praise.

“Aren't you too busy?” Isabel asked. “We don't want to impose.” Although the idea did sound very tempting.

“We've just moved here,” Beth explained, “so it'll be nice to get to know some of our neighbours.” 

“And we've just moved here, too,” both sisters said in unison.

“Well, that settles it,” Leo said. “Let the Christmas celebrations begin.”

As they made their way inside, Isabel whispered to Edith, “Absolutely no mention about our crazy speculations!”

“Just goes to show,” Edith whispered back, “how easy it is to jump to the wrong conclusions. But it was grand while it lasted.”

On their way home, Edith asked Isabel, “So what's Leo and Beth's Christmas tree telling us now?”

Isabel thought about it for a while and then answered, “That tree is telling us that it's very lucky to be upright.”

And the two chuckled happily, knowing that this was going to be a very special Christmas. 

Monday 2 January 2023


When I saw that this novel advertised in the women's writing magazine MSLEXIA was on the shortlist for the prestigious COSTA NOVEL AWARD, I reckoned that it must be a good read. And even better, the advertisement claimed that the novel was about a desperate and forbidden romance between a young Turkish Cypriot woman and a young Greek Cypriot man.

Cyprus is a country very close to my heart. I lived there in the 1970s and experienced the Greek Cypriot Coup in July 1974, and a week later the Turkish Invasion, which left me a refugee.

My home in Cyprus was just outside the very popular holiday resort of Famagusta, with its miles of golden beaches and a relaxed lifestyle. Add to that friendly people, plenty of cafes and restaurants, and a warm climate, so it was a great place to live. But now Famagusta is part of the Turkish occupied North and is mainly a ghost town, Turkey wanting to use it as a bargaining tool in talks. So I have never been able to return to my home or retrieve my possessions. Not that there would be any to retrieve because of the wide-spread looting which always accompanies war.

I'm now in the final editing stage of my own novel set in Cyprus during these times so I was keen to discover how Shafak presented The Cyprus Issue, as it is often called.


To fully understand The ISLAND of MISSING TREES you need to know the history of Cyprus so I'll give you a potted version:-

* Cyprus is a small, beautiful island in the Mediterranean, it's nearest neighbours being Turkey, just forty miles away. Since Cyprus has rich resources, ports which operate all year, and an enviable position for trading, it has been invaded for centuries by a great number of countries, including England in the form of Richard The Lionheart.

* Of all the countries which invaded the island, only Turkey left settlers there, so the island became populated by not only Greek Cypriots ( 80 % of the population) but also Turkish Cypriots ( 20 % of the population).

* From 1878 until 1974, Cyprus was governed by Great Britain and they established three military bases: Dhekelia, Episkopi and Akrotiri.

* There were good relations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots for many years until the Greek Cypriots decided that they'd like independence from Britain. Some Greeks Cypriots even wanted Cyprus to become part of Greece, which they called enosis, but this was a step too far for the Turkish Cypriots, who most certainly did not want to be part of Greece.

* The Turkish Government wasn't too happy about this either because they still held onto the belief that Cyprus should be part of Turkey. Tensions broke out in violent ways, with much bloodshed, and the two communities separated from each other, most Turkish Cypriots living in enclaves guarded by Turkish soldiers as a form of protection. It's fair to say that most of the violence was directed by Greek Cypriots against Turkish Cypriots, so in a way they were sowing the seeds of their own downfall.

* In 1960, The British Government granted Cyprus its independence, as it did with many other countries also under its rule. A treaty was signed giving Cyprus full autonomy, with a written constitution and a Parliament set up to include politicians from both sides. This independence was guaranteed by the governments of Britain, Turkey and Greece. Britain, however, was allowed to keep its military bases on the island for security reasons.

* But the newly formed Parliament proved unworkable so it ceased to function and both sides set up their own governments. There were also new rumblings about enosis, fighting broke out again, and UN soldiers were called in to keep the peace.

* In July1974 there was a Greek Cypriot Coup organised by those wanting enosis, and a week later, the Turkish Army invaded the northern part of the island to prevent this from happening, and also to seize what they thought was rightfully theirs.

* Thousands of people were killed or became refugees or simply 'disappeared', whole communities were torn apart, Cypriots were forced to take sides, and without mobile phones to keep friends connected, most were separated forever, which is what happened to me.

* Zoom into present day and we find Turkey still occupying roughly one third of the island. Those Greek Cypriots in this third who weren't killed were forced to relocate to the Greek Cypriot part of the island, and Turkish Cypriots who weren't killed moved into the Turkish occupied north along with thousands of Turks from mainland Turkey.

* This Turkish occupation was deemed unlawful by The United Nations. There have been endless talks since then to find a solution but so far none have worked. Therefore, there is still, forty-nine years later, an unsatisfying political stalemate.

* It's my belief that most Greek and Turkish Cypriots became victims of the political mischief played out by the governments of Greece, Turkey, Great Britain and, yes, America. There is now evidence that the American Government was heavily involved in the Greek Cypriot Coup, knowing and wanting Turkish forces to invade the island.

* This is not the place to explain this more fully. I am, after all, merely reviewing a novel. But you do need to know that America played a vital role in the coup and the war and the resulting misery.

* And finally, that 1960 guarantee made by Turkey, Greece and Britain to respect the independence of Cyprus proved to be meaningless rhetoric, which tells us a lot about world politics.


How, then, does Turkish/British writer Elif Shafak present this very human of tragedies: two lovers coping with all the difficulties they would undoubtedly face against the backdrop of unrest and war?

So here's the novel in my own condensed way and with my own observations :-

* The story takes place between 1968 to the late 2010s, moving backwards and forwards between times and two capitals: London and Nicosia, which is the capital of Cyprus.

There are very few characters :-

  • Turkish Cypriot Defne
  • Greek Cypriot Kostas
  • Their daughter Ada
  • Defne's sister Meryem
  • Turkish Cypriot Yusef and Greek Cypriot Yiorgos, who run a popular taverna in Nicosia

The main character, however, is the FIG TREE. But more of that later.

* Defne and Kostas have fallen in love but it's a forbidden love which would horrify their families if they knew. So they secretly meet at the taverna run by Yusef and Yiorgos, who understand such things because they're in a gay relationship which was illegal at the time. Sounds familiar? Think of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet but without the taverna and you're in the right area.

* Kostas is sent by his mother to stay with an uncle in London before the coup and war. This is because she wants to protect him from the same fate as his two brothers who are involved in the unrest. Therefore the lovers are separated, with no opportunity for Kostas to tell Defne that he is leaving.

* Much later, Kostas returns to Cyprus to find Defne and she goes back to London with him. They marry and have a daughter, Ada.

* They don't explain to Ada about their past and why they have no contact with their families in Cyprus, so she's a troubled teenager. We know this because the first chapter of Part One concentrates on Ada in her classroom at school. She's been asked to stand up by her teacher but then refuses to sit down, and proceeds to scream for a very long time.

* It's a very long chapter with no change of pace and by the time Ada screams, I also wanted to scream with frustration. As with all of the novel, Shafak relies on narrative so speech is kept to a minimum. Writers are advised to show rather than tell, with dialogue playing an essential part. But Shafak ignores this so there's an awful lot of telling in this novel, which I found tiresome.

* I won't tell you more about the plot in case you want to read the novel, apart from the fact that Meryem visits Kostas and Ada in London to try to repair the damage caused to Ada.

* For me, these characters are not fully rounded as individuals. We learn about them so very slowly and with such little detail that I couldn't feel any form of emotional attachment to any of them. We learn a little about Kostas' mother and brothers but nothing about Defne's parents. So I felt exasperated right from the beginning, and I would have put the novel aside if I hadn't wanted to see how Shafak presented The Cyprus Issue.


* So, back to the fig tree. I really do like the fig tree, and she is the subject of almost every chapter in-between the chapters involving the characters. This is where Shafak's writing truly comes to life and I must say here that Shafak's writing throughout the novel is beautifully crafted, which is probably why she was short-listed for the Costa Novel Award.

* The fig tree is growing in the middle of the taverna and she, the fig tree, tells us about fig trees in general right from the beginning of time. For example, it was the leaves from a fig tree which Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness after they'd disobeyed God and eaten from the tree of knowledge.

* She also tells us about her own history and how she ended up in the taverna. She talks about the changing seasons and which birds, animals and insects visit her, many of whom are her friends. She also compares herself with other trees and in some cases adds to the story of the two lovers.

* I can see why Shafak does this, using the fig tree as a thread linking the different stages of the story. It's a clever devise and would, I believe, have worked if only her chapters about the humans had matched the well-developed chapters of the fig tree.

* Kostas and Defne find that this wonderful fig tree is slowly dying when they re-visit the taverna, now abandoned and in ruins after the war. Kostas loves the natural world in all its forms, and his work in London is in this area although Shafak doesn't tell us what that work actually is. We are just left to guess.

* Anyway, Kostas takes a cutting and lovingly takes it back to London to plant in his garden. With the onset of winter, he carefully digs it up, wraps it securely and puts it in a hole in the garden to protect it.

* I'm all for the fig tree and hope that she survives but she doesn't save my overall opinion of the novel.


Shafak claims that she interviewed many Cypriots to get a sense of The Cyprus Issue, but in my opinion she has no understanding about life in Cyprus in those days, and she certainly has no idea what it's like to live in a war zone.

Also, there's no passion in this novel, no change of pace, and the coup and invasion are covered in just several paragraphs. For those of us living in Cyprus, the coup and the invasion were absolutely massive, and by not making them central to the plot, Shafak misses out on all that drama that could have been exploited in her novel.

Here are two more examples of how Shafak doesn't understand life in Cyprus :-

Firstly, there's no way that Yusef and Yiorgos would have run a taverna together. Homosexuality was only legalised in Cyprus in 1998, plus they came from the two very separate communities. Therefore I doubt whether they would have been in business together and have clientele from the two separate sides.

Secondly, the two lovers conduct their relationship in the taverna in order to keep it a secret from their families. Gossip abounds in Cyprus. It is, after all, a small country, and taverna regulars would most certainly have passed on the secret to the families concerned.

Another piece of advice given to writers is to write about what they know. Of course there are a number of genres, such as fantasy novels, where the writer relies on a vivid imagination. But The ISLAND of MISSING TREES (which is actually one cutting from a dying tree) is not a fantasy novel. Shafak most probably knows about relationships and how they can go wrong, but she doesn't understand Cypriots and The Cyprus Issue in the depth that's needed for such a novel.

In fact, it's insulting to all of us who were so badly affected by the war to read a novel claiming to be set in those times when it gives scant regard to the coup and the invasion. Think about the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. What if a novelist were to write a novel set in Ukraine about two lovers, say a Ukrainian and a Russian living in Ukraine, caught up in the turmoil of it all, but makes a tree the central character and doesn't explore in any depth the terrors of war.

My final word on the novel is that it belongs in the horticulture section in a book shop, not the fiction section. If you're a keen fan of horticulture and/or fig trees then I'd say that it'll be a good read for you.


So now is the time to tell you about my own novel set in Cyprus between 1973 and 1974 - Cyprus Blues. I have four main characters: a Greek Cypriot terrorist, his abused wife, a young English teacher thinking she's found love and her charismatic boyfriend. There are plenty of other characters too who are essential to the plot and, I hope, are as well-rounded as the main characters.

Cyprus Blues is written in three parts:-

  • Part One explores the developing relationships between the main characters in an increasingly unsettled Cyprus
  • Part Two centres on the Greek Cypriot Coup and how my characters cope with that
  • Part Three is all about the Turkish Invasion and the question is. . . who lives and who dies?

No need to have an introduction about The Cyprus Issue because it's woven into the story . . . and no detailed description of trees either.

I'll be publishing Cyprus Blues in 2023 and I'll let you know exactly when that happens and where it can be purchased.