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.

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