LITERARY FICTION

LITERARY FICTION

THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES by Elif Shafak (Viking £14.99, 368 pp)

THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES

by Elif Shafak (Viking £14.99, 368 pp)

Following her 2019 Booker Prize shortlisted novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds, Elif Shafak applies her signature blend of social consciousness and fanciful whimsy to this sprawling tale which takes place in the shadow of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

Two young lovers, one Greek, one Turkish, are scattered by the conflict before reuniting in England several decades later and their story is told in part by their endearingly chippy teenage daughter, Ada, and by, er, a talking fig tree that once grew in the Cypriot cafe where the couple secretly met.

But this novel feels like an overripe fig, spilling out thoughts and plot points on climate change, homophobia, abortion, partition, the best way to overwinter a fig tree, exile and the legacy of war on subsequent generations.

Shafak is an untidy writer at the best of times and, though fans might relish a wayward imagination untrammelled by narrative convention, the story’s energy gets sucked into a terrible tangle of branches and roots.

SECRETS OF HAPPINESS

by Joan Silber (Allen and Unwin £14.99, 288 pp)

This feels like a very New York novel — smart, slick and acute on the subject of money, relationships and personal contentment. A set of tangentially linked stories, it begins with Ethan, a lawyer poleaxed by the discovery his father has a second family, including two teenage sons, with a woman he met in Thailand.

Like cogs on a wheel, the cycle then clicks into the story of one of Ethan’s half brothers, Joe, then on to an English woman who had a brief fling with the husband of Joe’s ex-girlfriend, and so on.

By the end, we’ve met six new people, separated by varying degrees, and each in their own way grasping at the ephemeral nature of happiness and the unstable, intractable nature of family.

Perhaps the cycle offers diminishing returns as we spin away from Ethan, but Silber is much loved in the U.S. for her coolly intelligent portraits of individuals negotiating what it means to live a meaningful life and her clean, confident prose offers plenty to savour.

CUT OUT

CUT OUT by Michele Roberts (Sandstone Press, £14.99, 272 pp)

by Michele Roberts (Sandstone Press, £14.99, 272 pp)

A young peasant girl, living with her suffocating, traditionally minded parents, sniffs freedom when she meets a painter and his glamorous mistress holidaying in her rural Provencal town.

She seizes the chance to run away with the mistress to Nice. There she falls under the wing of the elderly Matisse, who offers her advice on developing her artistic talent (and less welcome thoughts on the incompatibility of her gender and her chosen career).

Interwoven with her story, some time later, is that of her gay godson Dennis, who is burdened by an untold family secret and who, when we meet him, is soon to travel to Nice to meet her.

Roberts tells her tale carefully, in small brightly coloured segments that can’t help but recall the style of Matisse’s famous cut-out artworks, and with an eye for domestic detail so sumptuous you can almost feel the linen and smell the sage leaves. So much so that the story itself starts to recede, as though dazzled by the light of its parts. 

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