Updated: Dec 1, 2021
The narrative is split into three different parts. Geographically it is set on two Islands, Cyprus and England.
The novel opens in England, 2010. Ada is sixteen years-old and has just lost her mother. A quiet girl, her mother’s passing only adding to her withdrawal. One day in school she stands and screams primordially. The scream is recorded on somebody’s phone and goes viral. She is immediately ostracized, ridiculed, and teased by her classmates and complete strangers, but then positive posts start to pop up.
The second part of the novel is set in Cyprus in 1974. Ada’s parents are very much in love, but unfortunately for Kostas and Defne, theirs is a love that is closer to forbidden than taboo. Kostas is Greek, and Defne is Turkish. Kostas is Christian, Defne is Muslim. In 1974 Cyprus, the political and religious divide, an almost insurmountable chasm dividing them both. They must keep their affair secret from everybody, especially their families.
The third part of the story is narrated by a fig tree, and it is this part that makes the book shine. The fig tree lives centrally in a tavern and is central to the narrative. Reading the tree narrating the story and seeing things from her, yes, the tree is female, perspective is quite eye opening. At points the tree almost makes it obvious to the reader that we humans, as a species, are a menace to the other species and the world. The wars, the hatred, the violence between different cultures difficult for a tree to understand. It is this part in which we learn much of Cyprus’ tragic history. The horrific civil war and division of the island. The atrocities that took place, the bodies found in mass graves. Families with no bodies to bury.
The novel highlights the cruelty and injustice that we inflict on ourselves all in the name of religion and difference of belief. The innocent civilians who are swept up in these never-ending civil wars that seem to always be raging in a myriad of locations around the globe. Wars which then lead to displacement, as families flee for their lives, becoming immigrants, many times far from home for the lucky ones, homeless refugees for the others. This is still going on all over the world while I type.
Ada knows next to nothing about her parent’s history on Cyprus. This was her mother’s wish, hoping to shield her from Cyprus’ brutal past. But she starts to learn more when her Aunt Meryem comes to visit. Because of the bitter blood between the families Meryem did not even attend Defne’s funeral. As Ada gets to know Meryem more, she starts to realize the situation and conditions her parents had to live with in a divided Cyprus.
At its heart this novel is a beautiful love story, a love that transcends all obstacles, including hatred, distance, and time. It is a novel about identity. Identity can be hard to establish when you live on an island that’s rule and culture has changed so often through the generations. It is about overcoming past trauma, trauma passed on from generation and not letting this trauma define your life. But it is so much more as well. It is a statement for us to try and put our beliefs and differences aside. Respect the view of the person on the other side of the fence. Imagine a world of tolerance and civility. A world with no wars, no genocide, just harmony and peace. Maybe if we could be a little more like the trees.
All of this written in Shafak’s beautiful style. One of my favourite reads this year.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and the most widely read female author in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels. Her work has been translated into fifty languages. Shafak holds a PhD in political science and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK, including St Anne's College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow. She is a member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy and a founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations). An advocate for women's rights, LGBT rights and freedom of speech, Shafak is an inspiring public speaker and twice a TED Global speaker, each time receiving a standing ovation. Shafak contributes to major publications around the world and she has been awarded the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017 she was chosen by Politico as one of the twelve people who would make the world better.