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Trees in Fiction

I have recently returned from a week’s holiday in Orkney. The landscape is beautiful, but there are few trees in it. Trees are amazing: some have been alive for more than 4000 years (the Great Basin Bristlecone); the tallest trees grow to 380 ft (the Sequoia or Redwood). California is the home of both these species.

I have been thinking about trees and how they are used in literature. For example, do you know this poem, published in 1914?

Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast,

A tree that looks at God all day,
A lifts her leafy arms to pray,

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair:

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

An oak tree by the Bovey River in Dartmoor National Park

Kilmer, who enlisted in the US Army in the First World War and was killed in action in 1918, draws attention to the significance of trees: as shelter, as evidence of god’s creativity (he was a Catholic), as a living thing, as an enduring thing, and of course as a thing of beauty. Trees in fiction draw on some of the same features, and bring to mind ideas of 

  • Steadfastness
  • Longevity
  • Shelter
  • Provider of food
  • Slow growth
  • Power
  • Former times
  • vulnerability
  • loveliness.

Here are six novels that explore some of these ideas.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

The tree in this long novel describing the coming-of-age of an impoverished young woman of immigrant families, stands for slow growth over the passage of time, and for steadfastness in the face of a hostile environment. The tree and Francie are both persistent and the novel honours this quality.

It’s a long novel, something of a classic and very popular with American troops in the Second World War. You can find my review here.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021)

In this novel the fig tree takes an active part in narrating the story. The island of the title is Cyprus, divided and with a history of recent violence. The fig tree grew on the dividing line, inside a tavern, but has been brought to London by Kostas who devotes his time to keeping it alive, even in North London’s inhospitable winters. 

A fig tree is a source of food, and its leaves, traditionally, a source of clothing. In this novel it represents the fragile lives of the island’s inhabitants and diaspora. Loss, death, migration, separation, these are all themes in this novel. Not all readers are convinced by the talking tree, by the way. Here is the link to my review.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985)

Another tree with supernatural powers is found in this late novel by Barbara Comyns. The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. It retells the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable, and the story is told with a feminist slant.

The tree in this novel grows in the garden of the home that Bella has shared with the Forbes, eventually marrying the widowed husband and becoming a step-mother. But happiness is a very fragile thing and Bella nearly loses hers. The link to my review can be found here.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp

The Trees by Percival Everett (2021)

You need a very strong stomach for this novel for the trees are the southern kind that Nina Simone and Billy Holliday refer to as bearing ‘strange fruit’. Lynching. There is some very dark, macabre humour in this novel, but fury also drives through this imagined story of revenge for the death of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and all the thousands of lynchings in the southern states. 

The features of an ordinary plot juxtaposed with the carnage that grows through the story echoes the way in which White history has failed to explore the history of Black murder and simply got on with writing about the White American dream. We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon. My review can be found here.

The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp. The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.

And some others

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012)

Poetic and sparse, this short novel is set in a beautiful orchard of pomegranate trees, in north Pakistan. The Taliban are active, punishing those who disobey their rules, or just punishing people. The narrator has suffered in prison, and must learn to live, love and write again. The story is quiet, with sensory perceptions heightened. The orchard pays a part in his recovery. Review can be found here.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) published by Faber and Faber. 139pp

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

The horrific Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-16 should have warned us about pandemics. The lessons learned by those involved should have been taken on board by the world as we faced the Coronavirus. In this novel, participants in the deadly epidemic relate their roles, including the baobab tree who has the last word.

‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’

The tree, a meeting point in many villages, welcomes back the humans when the outbreak is over and is optimistic about the future in which ‘the destiny of Man will become one with ours’. 

Baobab tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

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The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak 

I just loved this book, enjoyed its length and the narrative drive, the characters and the setting. It was recommended to me by two readers who I respect and so I obtained a copy, despite being rather lukewarm about Elif Shafak’s most recent novel: The Island of Missing Trees. 

It’s a novel to immerse yourself in; to marvel at the events in Jahan’s life, the people he meets and the skills he develops. Among his most valued friends are Sinam, the revered architect to the Sultan, Chota the white elephant that he cares for, and the leader of the Gypsy band Balaban who rescues him from many scrapes. All this is against the background of Istanbul in the sixteenth century, when its power rivalled any in Europe, and it traded with lands far away. It was a city crammed to the limits, full of people of different faiths and backgrounds, and ruled over by the sultans who held unimaginable wealth.

The Architect’s Apprentice

The apprentice of the story is Jahan who finds himself in the post of elephant tamer/mahout in the Sultan’s palace. Jahan is a bit of a chancer and a bit of a thief, but he is genuinely fond of Chota the white elephant who he delivers to the Sultan’s menagerie and for whom he must care. Her learns the architect’s trade, but also humanity from Sinan.

We follow him through a century, mostly in Istanbul. With the elephant he goes to war, parades, and builds. He travels to Rome and he falls for the sultan’s daughter. His own origins are not quite clear, but along with a very diverse population he has found his way to Istanbul and must try to stay alive there. He is closely involved in building the many mosques, bridges, madrasas, caravanserai, alms houses and aqueducts that still survive in Istanbul. He lives with the other animal tamers by the menagerie and has a ringside view of the palace. He and his elephant are often involved in the conspiracies of the palace, including the bloodletting that surrounds the succession of each sultan. Early in the story, Chota and Jahan go to war with the army of Sultan Suleiman. 

Chota broke into a springy trot enjoying the open air and the steady march after months of being confined to the palace garden. From where he sat on his neck Jahan could see below and behind, astonished to find himself staring at a sea of bodies with no end in sight. He saw the camels carrying provisions and the oxen pulling cannons and catapults; the Halberdiers of the Tresses, with their hair dangling from their caps; the dervishes chanting their invocations; the agha of the Janissaries proudly sitting atop his stallion; the Sultan riding an Arab steed, encircled by guards on both sides – the left-hand archers to his left, the right-handed to his right. In front of him rode a standard-bearer carrying his flag of the seven horsetails.
Propping up their banners and horsetails-on-poles; hoisting lances, scimitars, hatchets, arquebuses, axes, javelins, bucklers, bows and arrows, thousands of mortals were forging ahead. Jahan had never seen so many together. The army was less a horde of men that one lump of giant. The beat of feet and hooves in tandem was hair-raising and stupefying at once. They proceeded uphill against the wind, slicing through the landscape like knife into flesh. (85)

The generosity, abundance and imagination of this novel, evident in the previous quotation, are quite delightful. It sprawls, it raises and destroys hopes. It is vivid and hugely enjoyable. It also often unbelievable, although rooted in a rather loose history. Cursed to live too long a life, Jahan ends up in Hindustan, where he helps the Shah build the Taj Mahal.

One of the most striking passages concerns the social outcomes of the plague that strikes Istanbul, and how the rich closet themselves, but are not able to protect themselves; how many die; the fear and ignorance that the plague carries with it. Ultimately it sets tribe against tribe, in a vivid foretaste of Covid.

Before the circumcision celebrations, the plague arrived. First appearing on the outskirts of the city, in the hovels by the port of Scutari, it spread faster than wildfire, jumping from one house to the next, the curse scattering in the wind. Death settled over Istanbul like a fog that wouldn’t lift, seeping through every home and crack. It fluttered about in the sea breeze, frothed in the yeast of bread, brewed in the thick, bitter coffee. Little by little people stopped going about; shrinking from gatherings, they sank into solitude. The splash of oars and the murmur of oarsmen could not be heard even on the quietest evenings. No one wished to journey from one shore to the other if they didn’t have to. Never had Istanbulites been so afraid of standing out in the crowd. Never had they been so afraid of offending God. (112)

Ultimately it is the generosity and belief in the community embodied by the architect Sinan, but also by the Gypsies, and by the many other lowly or disadvantaged people that provides the positive outlook of this splendid novel.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city.  I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters. Her strong themes include the necessity of people to move from one country to another, and to explore the disorder created by humans.

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak, first published in 2014 by Penguin/Viking 456pp.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak on Bookword in August 2022 (shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022)

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The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Division of countries is seldom a permanent solution to internal conflict. I came to understand this through the study and teaching of history. Look at Ireland; and the division of the Indian Empire into India and Pakistan and later Bangladesh; and Berlin and Germany after the Second World War. And look at Cyprus, which is the island of the title of this novel.

I have visited Cyprus twice. First in June 1967 when it was not a divided island, but a troubled one.  I had been airlifted by the RAF out of Israel (more of this adventure another time perhaps). We stayed in Nicosia and while waiting for transport back to England spent some time on the ravishing empty beach of Kyrenia. This was the landing point for 6000 Turkish troops in 1974.

I returned thirty six years later in 2003 to Nicosia to work with some teachers. While the division of the Green Line was easing slightly, the huge Turkish flag, painted onto the mountainside, was still visible from Nicosia. And evidence of the violent division was still present in the severed streets and memorials for the dead. Everyone knew someone who had property in the north, or lost family members. While in London Greek and Turkish Cypriots got on fine, as I knew from my school, it was not so easy on the island that still bears the evidence of violence and division.

The Island of Missing Trees

The island is Cyprus. The narrative is spun around a Turkish woman and Greek man and their love affair in the middle of the island’s bloody civil war. We read of events in three time zones: violent unrest in 1974, the return of Kostas in the early 2000s and the effect on their marriage and their daughter in the present time. 

The effects of the political tensions and conflict on the natural world is also captured in this innovative novel: the loss of trees, the entrapment of migrating birds, the mosquito and other life. Much of this narrative comes from the fig tree that Kostas brings to England. The fig tree is being buried for its protection at the start of the novel, but once it occupied a tavern in Nicosia, the only place where a Turkish Cypriot girl could meet her Greek Cypriot boyfriend.

The narrative in these three periods of Cypriot history is interlaced with information from the fig tree. I was not entirely convinced by the tree’s voice, however information provided by the tree is essential for the plot, and for understanding that political violence is also environmental violence.

Kosta and Defne were separated by the war, and by their families’ hostility to a Muslim-Christian marriage. But Defne agreed to return to London with Kostas, and they had a daughter, Ada. The story opens as Kostas and Ada face the first winter without Dafne, who has died. Their isolation from their Cypriot connections is made clear when Ada is asked to do some homework, over the holidays, based on her family’s history.

She had never met her relatives on either side. She knew they lived in Cyprus somewhere but that was about the extent of her knowledge. What kind of people were they? How did they spend their days? Would they recognize her if they passed her in the street or bumped into each other at the supermarket? The only close relative she had heard of was a certain aunt, Meryem, who sent cheerful postcards of sunny beaches and wildflower pastures which jarred with her complete lack of presence in their lives. (12-3)

Ada is grieving for her mother, Defne. The only light in the lives of father and daughter comes from the arrival of Meryem, visiting them in London for the first time. Ada begins to understand her family’s history, her mother’s struggles, from this vibrant character, who cooks and shops and tells stories from Cyprus with gusto.

The story of her parents’ relationship is told from the perspective of each character and of the fig tree against the backdrop of the history of the troubled island. We learn of the brutality of those times, especially as, in the second timeframe of the novel, Defne works in a team of archaeologists who are investigating mass graves. Both Kostas and Defne want to find out what happened to the gay owners of the Fig Tree Tavern, who disappeared in the war. Through this story we also learn about loss, and about the experiences of exile and migration.

Tourists who visit the island today are woefully ignorant about its history: violence, partition, the pain of separation, exile, and the natural world in danger. How quickly the world turns away. The division of the island was not a permanent solution to the issues. 

This is a powerful story, and clearly judges of big literary prizes think it is successful in its scope. I enjoyed it and recommend it to readers.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city. 

This is the first of her books that I have read, and I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, including a fig tree! It is a touching story, a reminder that migration is part of the natural order of the world, and a response to the disorder created by humans. But divisiveness is always destructive, of people’s lives and of the ecological order of the world.

On her blog Heavenali tells us that she loved the book, finding it ‘a beautiful read’.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp

Shortlisted for Costa Book Award 2021 and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022

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