Reviews: Vivien Horler
The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak (Viking/ Penguin)
Growing a fig tree in London is not easy. They don’t like the climate.
This may explain something about the British character. The ancients believed a great cosmic tree joined the underworld to earth and heaven, its branches holding up the sun, moon and stars, and its roots reaching down to hell. But what sort of tree was it?
Humans were unable to agree. It could have been a poplar, a tamarind, a cedar or a baobab. And so humans fell into war.
But the narrator of this luminous novel, which happens to be a fig tree, says fighting over what the cosmic tree might have been is unwise, as different trees have different characters, suitable to different moods and moments.
If you’re feeling discouraged, a flowering horse chestnut will cheer you up. An aspen will help you emerge stronger and kinder. A magnolia will help you dream about the future, and a jacaranda could stir your imagination. “Then again, if it’s love you’re after or love you have lost, come to the fig, always the fig.”
And this is what Kostas and Defne do.
In early 1974 Kostas and Defne are in love. But they live on Cyprus, with Kostas Greek and Defne Turkish. While this story begins when the island towns and villages are still integrated, before the overthrow of Archbishop Makarios and the civil war, love across the line is rarely accepted.
But Kostas and Defne have something going for them – a sanctuary in the form of a backroom at the Happy Fig, a bar in Nicosia run by two gay men, one Greek, one Turkish.
The Happy Fig is distinguished by an ancient fig tree which grows in the middle of the pub and out through a hole in the roof.
Trouble erupts on the island. Kostas’s older brother is shot dead, and his younger brother disappears to fight with the partisans. Their mother, desperately afraid she might lose her last remaining son, sends him to London to stay with her brother. Kostas is dispatched with such haste he is unable to say goodbye to Defne.
But we know that they do eventually get together again, because the story opens in London, with Ada, Kostas and Defne’s daughter, an unhappy high school pupil who feels she doesn’t fit in. Her mother has died, and Kostas and she are increasingly at a distance.
It’s shortly before Christmas, a storm is threatening, and Kostas has to do something to protect his fig tree, taken from a cutting of the tree in the Happy Fig. He slices away some of the roots, digs a trench, and then pushes the tree over to ride out the weather under shelter.
Somewhere along the line has Defne told Kostas she doesn’t want Ada burdened with the misery of the history of the island civil war; as a result the girl knows almost nothing of her own and her family history. And then her aunt, Defne’s sister, comes to stay, and slowly Ada learns the truth.
Initially I found the fig tree narrator irritating, but I – and probably most readers – don’t know that much about Cyprus; the fig tree gives us context
This novel grew on me slowly, but it was worth persevering.
Elif Shafak is a British Turkish writer whose novel 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize.
The Night She Disappeared, by Liza Jewell (Century)
It’s midsummer and Tallulah, a teenage single mother, goes on a date night to the local pub with her boyfriend Zach.
Tallulah, Zach and baby Noah all live with Tallulah’s mum, Kim.
Kim likes Zach, and has discovered a small jewellery box in Zach’s jacket pocket, one containing a small diamond ring. Kim is delighted, and is pretty sure that tonight’s the night Zach is going to pop the question.
But after 4am Kim wakes to discover the young couple are still not home. A few hours later Kim contacts Zach’s parents, but they have no idea where the pair are. Eventually Kim goes to the pub to be told Tallulah and Zach had met friends and gone on to a pool party at grand house nearby.
Kim doesn’t know these friends but, increasingly terrified, goes to the grand house. Kim hears Tallulah had had too much to drink and the couple had called a taxi to take them home.
Kim checks with the local taxi companies, but none reports having picked anyone up at the house. The trail runs cold. Kim fears that Tallulah may have answered Zach’s proposal with a “no”, leading to violence.
A year or so later a young novelist, Sophie, moves to Kim’s village. Sophie’s teacher boyfriend has been appointed headmaster of an expensive private school, and they have a cottage in the grounds.
On a walk in the woods behind their home, Sophie spots a small notice nailed to their back fence. It says: “Dig here” with an arrow is pointing down. Sophie fetches a trowel and digs, finding a muddy little jewellery box. Inside is a small diamond ring.
Detective mysteries are Sophie’s stock in trade. She rubs dirt off the little box and finds the name of a jeweller in the nearby town. Intrigued, she goes to the store and is told the ring was bought by a young man a year previously. This leads her to Kim.
The police have not made much headway with the case, so Sophie and Kim join forces. And in the process they uncover some strange and scary events, involving a variety of people including old schoolfriends of Tallulah’s, teachers at the private school, and the daughter of the school matron.
I’m not alone in finding this a gripping thriller. In a shout on the cover Lee Child describes it as “365 pages of insane suspense”, while Marian Keyes says it is “unbelievably good”. I thought so too.
Changing Places, by David Lodge (Penguin Books)
Any fan of David Lodge’s smart and comic novels, often set in academia, will know Changing Places is not new.
In fact it was published in 1975, in a forgotten time before cellphones and personal computers, when you could still smoke in aircraft (cigarettes only though, not pipes, to the chagrin of British lecturer Philip Swallow)
I spotted it among several other David Lodge novels on a bookshelf at a beach house on a weekend away, and fell upon it. Lodge is such a good writer, and he’ll have you laughing out loud.
Swallow teaches literature at Rummidge, a rainswept university in the British Midlands, while Professor Morris Zapp is a Jane Austen scholar (his children are called Elizabeth and Darcy) at the sundrenched Euphoric State University in a thinly disguised California.
Leaving their families behind, the men, who apart from their specialities have almost nothing in common, are selected to exchange posts for a year, with donnish, uptight Swallow heading to Euphoric State, and brash, cigar-smoking Zapp off to Rummidge. Lodge hilariously compares and contrasts the men’s reactions to their new colleagues and new environments.
Inevitably the men meet each other’s families and become involved in hotbeds of intrigue and naughty romps.
Changing Places and two other Lodge novels, Small World and Nice Work, have been published as A David Lodge Trilogy. If you’re a David Lodge fan, you’ll find the books are well worth rereading, and if you’re not, you’re in for a delight.
My only real caveat is this book, like many published a goodly while ago, is printed in a very small font. You’ll need your reading glasses.