Most of the famous trees in literature remain quite mute. Those that shelter and guard literary celebrities - Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest - offer no commentary on the action below their leaves or beneath their branches.
Even trees capable of dominating humans and their world are usually taciturn. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil enjoys direct lines through the earth and into the realm of the gods, but has little to pass on. Tolkien's ents, who could "tear apart solid rock like breadcrumbs", display a kindly side.
Elif Shafak therefore breaks new ground in introducing an ordinary fig tree (Ficus carica) as a co-narrator in her new novel. A Turkish writer now living in London, Shafak dedicates her book to "the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories". A cutting from her narrator fig is, however, not left behind in its native Cyprus but rather smuggled into London, transplanted before a storm "when the world turned the colour of melancholy".
As a story-teller, the fig defines its task as watching and waiting, "bearing witness to the ways of the humans". It does so in a somewhat sententious manner. Other components of Cyprus' natural world (especially ants, butterflies and honeybees) are affectionately celebrated. A reader is re-assured that trees never suffer loneliness because fungi, roots and bacteria connect them an abundance of nature. Turning to the humans, their flaws and follies are judiciously noted. If Tolkien had turned a well-meaning know-all like Gandalf into a tree, he might well have emerged as this fig.
Apart from the fig, Shafak offers relatively thin pickings. In a note to the reader, she describes her fiction as "a mixture of wonder, dreams, love, sorrow and imagination". Those are pretty conventional ingredients for a novel. In addition, Shafak contributes historical detail on the partition of Cyprus, continuing enmity between Greek and Turkish communities and the longevity of prejudices.
The plot commences in 1974 when two teenagers, Kostas and Defne, a Greek boy and a Turkish girl, meet in a taverna. The two pages devoted to the taverna's menu offer an enticing taste sensation. Much of the taverna's roof is held up by the fig tree; much of the plot is consumed by the burgeoning love between the youngsters. Although Othello was set in Cyprus, this story owes much more to Romeo and Juliet.
Issues of parentage, sexuality, bad habits and coercive control are explored, in a way which is sensitive but not really consequential. The tale is lifted by Defne, "too rebellious to be a good Mum, too motherly to be a good rebel". Readers may wish she had a larger part.
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