Posts Tagged ‘Elif Shafak’

Elif Shafak is an author who has been publishing for years, who I was aware of, even went to an author event where she was speaking – but who I didn’t get around to reading until the end of 2020. I first read The Bastard of Istanbul which I was hugely impressed by and a few months later I read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. That novel became one of my favourite reads of last year, the kind of book I still find myself thinking about and have recommended to people lots of times. So, of course I was looking forward to The Island of Missing Trees and delighted when my friend Meg passed her beautiful hardback copy on to me. It didn’t disappoint, I loved it – although it perhaps didn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of absolute perfection that 10 Minutes…. was for me, it didn’t fall far short. 

The book is dedicated:  

“To immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless,  

and to the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories.” 

Divided into three time periods – the late 2010s the early 2000s and 1974 – The Island of Missing Trees tells a story of belonging and identity, a poignant story of love and trauma. It is beautifully written, compelling and thought provoking.  

The novel opens with sixteen-year-old Ada, in her Year 11 history class at her secondary school in north London, shortly before the Christmas holidays begin. Her mother died about a year before and she is struggling – she finds herself standing up in class and screaming, just screaming while everyone around her looks on bemused and disturbed. The video of her screaming goes viral – well of course it does.  

Ada’s father Kostas is a middle-aged botanist a Greek Cypriot who first left the island of his birth during the turmoil that divided it in two. On the day of Ada’s screaming, he is burying his beloved fig tree in the garden – to protect it from the English winter. The fig tree is important, in fact the fig tree narrates parts of the story, becoming a character in itself, and one the reader can’t help but love too. The fig tree that Kostas tends so faithfully is a cutting from a tree that grew in Cyprus, it had grown through the cavity in the roof of a tavern – witness to everything that occurred there.  

In 1974 on the beautiful island of Cyprus two teenagers fell in love. They were from opposite sides of that divided island; Kostas a Christian is Greek, and Defne is Turkish and Muslim. None of that matters to them, they only want to be together but that isn’t very easy at all, there are eyes everywhere.

“Love is the bold affirmation of hope. You don’t embrace hope when death and destruction are in command. You don’t put on your best dress and tuck a flower in your hair when you are surrounded by ruins and shards. You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood. You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974. Not here, not now. And yet there they were, the two of them.” 

The two young lovers take to meeting at a tavern where the owners will help keep their secret, a place where they can be private and out of the sight of unwelcome eyes. The tavern is run by Yusuf and Yiorgos, two men living outside the conventions of the times too. The tavern is known for the fig tree growing through the centre of it. The story of Kostas, Defne and all of Cyprus is rooted in that place and the people who met there.  

“Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. in life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.”  

When violence and unrest erupt on the island between Greeks and Turks Kostas is forced by his family to go to England where he has an uncle who can give him a start there. He has to leave Defne behind, not knowing when or if he will see her again. She is devastated by his desertion and refuses to write back to him. It is a silence that will last decades. Many years later, Kostas returns to Cyprus for the first time since he left in 1974 – he knows that Defne never married, neither did he. So, although officially he is there to seek out certain plant species, he is really looking for much more than that. Ada is the result of their reconciliation and late marriage. However, the years have taken their toll. The years of trauma, the realities for those who stayed in Cyprus are ever present, the losses that were suffered, the people who went missing and have never been found. Defne is one of those who still searches. Her work has been to reunite people with the bodies of their dead – she carries all of this with her to her new life in England. It is something she will never rid herself of. 

In the late 2010s Ada only knows the outline of her parents’ story. When her father tells her that her mother’s sister Meryem is coming to visit she is unimpressed. She can’t forgive Meryem for never having visited before – not even for her mother’s funeral. Meryem arrives with a bagful of colourful clothes she hasn’t yet found the confidence to wear, and bit by bit she gains her niece’s trust while cooking up a storm of Turkish dishes in the kitchen.  

I really must read more by Elif Shafak – this was another beautiful read.  

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At my suggestion, my book group chose to read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, in July. This is only the second novel by this acclaimed author that I have read – the first being The Bastard of Istanbul, last year. Now I am left wondering why I waited so long to acquaint myself with this wonderful writer. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019, it may well have won in any other year, but had the misfortune to be up against Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood.

Told in three sections; Mind, Body, Soul – the novel takes its premise from the idea, that there have been recorded instances of the brain continuing to show activity for up to 10 minutes 38 seconds.

“Grief is a swallow,’ he said. ‘One day you wake up and you think it’s gone, but it’s only migrated to some other place, warming its feathers. Sooner or later, it will return and perch in your heart again.”

By rights, I suppose this should be a deeply depressing book, unbearably sad – and yet it isn’t at all – and considering the very dark themes that is some achievement. It is testament to the author’s skill that, while sometimes very poignant, this is a novel that is surprisingly uplifting in places. Elif Shafak breathes such life into her characters, that she makes them, for the reader, as real as the people next door. Each character finely drawn, distinct and vivid. I loved this book so much it will definitely be a contender for my end of year list. It is extraordinarily well written, tender, and unforgettable. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The novel opens with the main characters death – Tequila Leila as she is known – killed, shoved into a metal bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. After Leila’s death each minute – for precisely 10 minutes 38 seconds – her consciousness recalls a sensuous memory. Memories of her childhood, and of the life she lived in the street of brothels where she worked.  

“In the sky high above, a sliver of yesterday’s moon was visible, bright and unreachable, like the vestige of a happy memory. She was still part of this world, and there was still life inside her, so how could she be gone? How could she be no more, as though she were a dream that fades at the first hint of daylight?”

Leila was born in 1947 in the city of Van, the daughter of a man with two wives. She died in Istanbul in 1990 – fiercely loved by five amazing friends, the custodian of a deaf cat called Mr Chaplin. The life she lived in-between those two events is bittersweet, sometimes enraging, but often, and surprisingly full of love.

As Leila’s life ebbs away, her five friends, are desperately trying to find her. Their loyalty to her and love for her was ultimately what makes this book such a delightful experience.

The city where Leila was born and raised is a long way from Istanbul, she grew up in a house of secrets. Her young mother having suffered many miscarriages before she came along, was fragile, dominated by her husband and his first wife. Leila’s brother born some years later; has Downs Syndrome – Leila adores him.

“Her mother had once told her that childhood was a big, blue wave that lifted you up, carried you forth and, just when you thought it would last forever, vanished from sight. You could neither run after it nor bring it back. But the wave, before it disappeared, left a gift behind – a conch shell on the shore. Inside the seashell were stored all the sounds of childhood.”

As she grows up, her father becomes more and more religious, her life narrows, he places strictures on her life outside of the home, and she struggles to spend time with even her best friend. She is sexually abused by an uncle – the first step on the road which leads her to the street of brothels in Istanbul.

Leila recalls her optimistic running away to Istanbul – and how things didn’t work out as she had hoped, but how she couldn’t go back. She remembers smells, sounds, tastes and emotions from various parts of her forty three years on earth, she remembers, falling in love, her great happiness. Her mind travels back to how she met her five great friends; Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameela, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra, outsiders like Leila they exist on the fringes of Istanbul society. Only Sinan, Leila’s childhood friend, who followed her to Istanbul leads a conventional life – though it is a life of two halves – his family, knowing nothing of his friends and how very much they mean to him. Leila, Nalan, Sinan, Jameela, Zaynab and Humeyra are stronger than family – the best part of the book – and I don’t want to give spoilers, is what these five people do for Leila after she has died.

In many ways a difficult book to write about without some mild spoilers, but reading it is a whole different experience – such a good choice for our book group, if I do say so myself. A novel full of feminist themes – it made for a brilliant discussion.

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Some of you may remember that a few months ago I subscribed to the Books that Matter boxes. It is a lovely feminist themed box each month – a well-chosen book with three themed gifts. The only reason I have let my subscription lapse is because I have so many books – and the danger with a feminist book box is that I get a book I have already got or read. In fact, that only happened once out of four boxes – so it could have been worse. The Bastard of Istanbul was in the third of my four boxes – and it was a book I was very pleased to receive because Elif Shafak is an author I have wanted to read for years. I heard her speak once at the Birmingham Literature festival (remember attending actual events in person!) and I loved the sound of her work. Now I am left wondering why I left it so long to read her.

The Bastard of Istanbul is a novel of modern Turkey – but with a beautiful, poignant acknowledgement of its history, and the different peoples who make up its population.

“That was the one thing about the rain that likened it to sorrow: You did your best to remain untouched, safe and dry, but if and when you failed, there came a point in which you started seeing the problem less in terms of drops than as an incessant gush, and thereby you decide you might as well get drenched.”

As the novel opens, a fiercely modern, rather rebellious young woman walks through a rainy Istanbul to an appointment at a clinic. When she arrives, she demands for all to hear, that she needs an abortion. She is nineteen and unmarried.

Twenty years later, Asya is also nineteen, growing up in a house full of women. The men of the Kazanci family all dying in their forties – succumbing to a mysterious family curse.

In this house of women there is Asya’s beautiful, mother Zeliha, who runs a tattoo parlour and still wears the short skirts of her rebellious youth; her sisters; the headscarf wearing Banu, a clairvoyant; who discovers secrets from her djinn, Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster and Ceveriye a high school teacher. The older generation made up of Asya’s grandmother Gülsüm and Petite-Ma – who had been the stepmother of Gülsüm’s husband. Aside from a succession of cats, the only male member of the family, Mustafa left for America years earlier to escape the family curse.  

“It is so demanding to be born into a house full of women, where everyone loves you so overwhelmingly that they end up suffocating with their love; a house where you, as the only child, have to be more mature than all the adults around….
But the problem is that they want me to become everything they themselves couldn’t accomplish in life…..
As a result, I had to work my butt off to fulfill all their dreams at the same time.”

Asya – has a difficult relationship with her mother – and from a young age has called her Aunt Zeliha – in a house full of aunts it was easier for her, she little knows how this hurts her mother. She is a young woman full of questions about Turkey and the past. She listens to Johnny Cash and is a regular at the café Kundera, where regulars gather and discuss all kinds of political and philosophical questions. Here she meets up with an interesting group of intellectual acquaintances including an alcoholic cartoonist with whom she is having an affair.

In Arizona, Mustafa lives a quiet life with Rose, his wife, and his step-daughter Armanoush. Rose had previously been married to an Armenian-American man from San Francisco – so Armanoush has grown up dividing her time between the two families, in which life in very different. Her Armenia family is large, noisy and loving, and sometimes overwhelming. Now an online forum is teaching Armanoush all about the long Armenian/Turkish conflict, the reason for the resentments one side of her family still have for Turkish people. Armanoush feels that the only way she can really begin to develop an understanding of her heritage and her family’s past is to pay a visit to Istanbul. So, without the knowledge of either her San Francisco or her Arizona families – she arranges to pay a visit to her step-father’s family in Istanbul. The Kazanci women are delighted – and excitedly begin to prepare for their American visitor.  

“There is no together anymore. Once a pomegranate breaks and all its seeds scatter in different directions, you cannot put it back together.”

I don’t want to say any more about the actual plot – but this novel delves deeper into the Armenian/Turkish past of Istanbul and both these families in such a clever and touching way. The novel becomes increasingly hard to put down as all the threads of past and present start to weave together. This is a novel with many layers, beautifully written, philosophical, and often lyrical. I loved it.

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