There are a few authors whose books I will buy as a matter of course when they are released. One of those is Elif Shafak.
When I reviewed Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World I wrote that I regarded Shafak as one of today’s great writers. I have read many of the books on her backlist. Her writing style is both poetic and compelling, her plotting intricate and intensely human, her research and knowledge of Turkish history considerable. 10 Minutes was narrated by a corpse. Fine, I’ll be told a story by a corpse. No worries. What Shafak says goes, for me.
Or it did, until now. Her latest book The Island of Missing Trees has blown all that out of the water.
The overarching theme of the book is the strain that war places on families, in this case civil war and the partition of Cyprus by a buffer zone patrolled by UN troops, between Greece and Turkey in 1974. So far so good. But the execution I thought was not to her usual standard. There is a modern story, and a backstory. In 1974 the plot involves the relationship between Turkish Cypriot Defne and her boyfriend – whom she later marries – a Greek man called Kostas. I found this whole scenario unconvincing and am not sure I can even explain why except Romeo and Juliet this is definitely not.
The modern story is the story of their child, Ada, now aged 15, who, at the commencement of the book has been bereaved by her mother’s death.
Ada isn’t coping and in one episode she screams out loud and long whilst in the classroom at school much to the surprise of her teacher and classmates. It appears there is no intervention after this episode. Her father, Kostas, is not coping any better than she is and spends a lot of time in his garden burying a fig tree. Then the mother’s sister, Ada’s Aunt Meryem turns up from Cyprus.
What didn’t I like about this book? I didn’t find that I was interested in the outcome of the story but I found all the characters unsympathetic. Even Ada. Although a motherless 15 year old should be empathetic she just wasn’t. In fact she is rude to everyone and while I understand that that might be the reality of being traumatised it didn’t make interesting reading. I didn’t really want to be told a story by a fig tree. Although there is plenty on climate change and global warming, the explanations come across as didactic. Descriptions of the original relationship between Defne and Kostas were uninteresting and unconvincing. None of the grief felt real. Kostas just disappears off to England when things start hotting up in the civil war, because his mother suggests he ought to go. Well, hey ho! He must have been really in love then!
There are a couple of mistakes in the text.
In 1974 one of the characters ties her ‘trainers’ round her neck using the laces in order to creep out of the house. I think Shafak is too young to have been around in 1974 I sadly am not. I don’t think ‘trainers’ existed in 1974; there were, however, plimsoll style shoes known as sneakers.
Elsewhere a character says: ‘Do you have a problem with that?’ an expression which sounds very 21st century and probably would not have been used in the 1970s. Although maybe in Cyprus it was!
These are minor nitpicks I know, but they really grated. Obviously others have not been disappointed judging from the endorsements on the front cover. Not only was Island of Missing Trees nothing like as interesting and engaging as Shafak’s previous work, but the book did not even seem to be written by the same author as 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World, or Three Daughters of Eve.