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Posts Tagged ‘Elif Shafak’

I’ve been reading, just haven’t had time to blog. We’ve been spending time with our son and granddog who are moving to the midwest next week. While the granddog was staying with us, I read Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral a couple of weeks ago. It is about a German town and its cathedral in the 1200s. I actually wish it there had been more about the cathedral and less about murder and misogyny. The most interesting thing about this book was how tumultuous the times were, and how different characters and their families rode out their changing fortunes. But mostly it was about how greed for power and wealth permeated church and state as well as commerce. it’s a miracle the church survived as a religious institution given how corrupt and political it was. Maybe all the political maneuvering and prioritizing of profits and senseless violence in this book was just a little too much right now.

Then I read the second S J Bennett Queen Elizabeth mystery, All the Queen’s Men, which has a much better British title: A Three Dog Problem. I enjoyed the first of these, The Windsor Knot, and it seemed like the latest would be a good read for the UK’s Jubilee week, and I was in the mood for something lighter after Cathedral. But, I found the sequel harder to follow — the mystery just didn’t seem as plausible to me — and I’m less comfortable with a white author writing about a Black woman’s perspective (the Queen’s Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi) after spending a year in a social justice class. I enjoyed the parts that imagined what the Queen was thinking, but I didn’t find it as funny as the first one. That said, the scenes with the dogs are fun, and I enjoy Bennett’s portrayal of the affection between the Queen and Prince Philip.

One read I very much enjoyed was The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. Bookconscious readers know I read another of Shafak’s novels, Honour, early in the pandemic. I liked it a lot, and was happy to find another book by Shafak in the library’s eBook app. The Island of Missing Trees, like Honour, deals with the lives of immigrants in London. The central characters are Kostas, a Greek Cypriot man, Defne, his recently deceased Turkish Cypriot wife, their daughter Ada, and the fig tree that grows in their garden in London. Yes, the fig tree is a main character.

Kostas is a prominent environmental scientist, Ada his teenage daughter. When the novel opens they’ve been struggling to communicate in the aftermath of Defne’s death. It’s almost the winter break at school when Ada has an embarrassing incident in class, precipitated by thinking about an assignment requiring her to speak to an older relative, something she doesn’t have. At home, she finds her father outside as a storm approaches, burying the fig tree to keep it safe from the harsh winter weather.

With the storm comes an unexpected visitor, her mother’s sister, Meryem. With her superstitions, her suitcase full of colorful clothes she’s never worn, and her penchant for cooking many dishes at once, Meryem rubs Ada the wrong way. The teen tells this aunt she’s never met that she’ll never forgive her for not attending her mother’s funeral. Ada avoids Meryem as best she can, but curiosity — after all this is someone who knew her mother and father when they were young — overcomes antipathy. I found this very realistic.

Kostas and Defne’s story comes out in bits; the fig tree tells us that in real life stories are like that. It took a little getting used to the fact that the fig tree has a voice in this novel, as do other creatures. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but having read books about plant sentience, it didn’t seem far fetched to me that the fig would be a reliable source of information. While Ada learns a little bit more about her parents from Meryem, the fig shares the story of Cyprus in 1974, history that was vague to me before, through the stories of young Kostas and Defne.

Island of Missing Trees is about the impossibility of shielding children from their parents’ pain, the damage to humanity and the natural world when colonialism and tribalism erupt into war, the struggle to heal from loss and the way culture can travel and adapt. Defne makes Kostas promise that their child will be British, which is to say, she will not be burdened by their past in Cyprus, but it’s not a promise that can be kept — the not telling is itself a kind of wound. Ada feels the loss of having no relatives, no opinion about the best kind of baklava, no idea that her parents were childhood sweethearts.

As the tree says towards the end of the book, “The voices of our motherlands never stop echoing in our minds. We carry them everywhere we go.” The fig is the connection to Cyprus for Kostas, and for Ada, who has never been, but tells her aunt she will travel there now that the door has been opened. Meryem asks which side she’ll visit, and Ada says “I’ll come to the island . . . . I just want to meet islanders, like myself.”

Shafak is careful not to make the ending unrealistically optimistic — yes, Defne was involved in the effort to heal the past by finding and identifying remains, helping families put their dead to rest, and helping Cypriots of different backgrounds share their stories. Yes, Ada’s generation doesn’t necessarily carry their parents’ prejudices forward. But there are many references to climate change — Shafak notes through those parts of the story that people are still finding ways to destroy communities, human and nonhuman.

Still, The Island of Missing Trees is a lovely and mostly hopeful book, a book about a father and daughter making peace with their grief together. Even though Defne fell victim to, as Kostas describes, “the past, the memories, the roots,” there is a sense that Ada will be able to move into the future stronger for having finally learned a little more about those things. I really enjoyed this novel.

Finally, I just this morning finished Thirst, by Amélie Nothomb. It’s a short novel told from the point of view of Jesus just before, during and after the crucifixion. This is not a religious book — one review called it “potentially heretical” and Nothomb has Jesus correct a few things in the Gospels that he says were misreported or misrepresented — but rather a literary take on what Jesus might have felt and thought. From chiding the beloved disciple: “John, I love you very much. But that does not mean you can go around spouting nonsense.” To riffing on ordinary human pleasures: “I’ve always loved the feeling of being sheltered the moment it starts raining harder and harder, it’s a wonderful sensation.” And appreciating his human parents: “Joseph was good by nature . . . . My mother, too, is a far better person than I am,” as well as the truly kind people he encounters, like Simon of Cyrene “If he’d just shown up on the street by chance and seen me staggering under the cross, I think he would have reacted exactly the same way: not pausing to think for even a second, he would have run up to help.”

It’s also an examination of what humanity is; Jesus speculates that “The entire human condition can be summed up like that: it could be worse.” And thirst is a central preoccupation of his, as the title implies, and he returns to the subject throughout the book, musing at one point, “A dry throat imagines water as ecstasy, and the oasis is proof against waiting. He who drinks after crossing the desert never says, ‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.'” And from the cross, “From deep within a desire wells up, the desire that most resembles me, my pet craving, my secret weapon, my true identity, the thing that has made me love life and makes me love it still:

‘I thirst.'”

This was an interesting read, if you’re open to a fictional retelling of Jesus’s life.

It’s lovely to have had so many interesting things to read lately.

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I read Honour, by Elif Shafak, for a discussion group at work. it’s a complicated novel about Adem and Pembe Toprak, Kurdish Turks who have emigrated to London in the 1970s with their children, Iskander (whose English friends call him Alex) and Esma. In England they have a second son, Yunus. While the family has a decent life in London, both Adem and Pembe bear the scars of their childhoods in Turkey, where rules about propriety, violence, and shame deeply impact them and their families.

Shafak changes point of view and time period frequently, which is something I don’t usually like and often find confusing. But I managed to follow what was happening in Honour, and the shifting narrative works well in this story. Different perspectives remind the reader that the same event, viewed through a different lens, might appear differently. And she is telling different generations’ stories, so the shifting comes naturally.

We learn early — right in the first chapter, from Esma, that she has a brother who is a murderer. The rest of the book marches steadily towards that moment. But it also veers back into the past, into Pembe’s childhood, where she and her twin sister, Jamila, grew up in village, in a family of eight daughters, and where their mother died trying to bear a son. And into Adem’s childhood, where he grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father, whose actions destroyed his family, even though his wife, Adem’s mother, is the one who brought them shame.

This is one of the book’s themes: men do plenty of dishonourable things, but women are the ones who bring shame to the family. And yet, there are a few kindly or wise men, and a few women who judge things shameful or enable or mete out the punishment to those who have brought shame; Shafak doesn’t oversimplify the moral universe of her book. She touches on extremism, nationalism, the pressures to conform to western standards of beauty, the dangers of forcing men and women into set gender roles, and the painful consequences of capitalism, all without forcing any of these things on readers — they unfold in the novel naturally.

Religion and belief play a strong role, but Shafak is once again skillful and nonjudgemental; even the most extreme beliefs appear within their contexts to be part of the lives she portrays. She doesn’t over-dramatize or make the God the culprit when humans act outside their own interest, but she also doesn’t belittle the strongly held beliefs some of her characters have. Love is also a central theme, and the relationships between family members, friends, and lovers. There wasn’t a relationship in the book that felt forced for the plot or unrealistic, and that’s saying something in a story this complex.

Shafak manages to write a book that doesn’t feel heavy or brutal, but empathetic and somewhat hopeful, even as she tells the story of people burdened by heartbreaking circumstances. A very interesting read, that took me into other people’s lives. I always love a book that transports me and this one did that, whether to Istanbul, a Kurdish village or remote areas of Turkey, London, or a jail cell in Shrewsbury. Oddly, there is even a brief outbreak of a deadly virus.

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