Sunday, June 27, 2010

A week in Cyprus

The week in question begins on July 20, 1974, with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The main narrative of Christy Lefteri's A Watermelon, A Fish, and a Bible takes place within this timeframe, with flashbacks to scenes from the previous three decades. This was an impulse buy at Book Depository, recommended probably because I'd bought another book set in the 20th-century Mediterranean world. It deals with an event about which I knew next to nothing, but in her moving debut, Lefteri has made it one I'm unlikely to forget.

The protagonist is Koki, a young Greek Cypriot woman who has met with prejudice all her life because of her flame-red hair, a reminder of the island's legacy of British colonial rule. Many conquerors have left deep footprints on Cyprus over the past two millennia — Turkey is just the latest — and its people have long memories. Between Koki's appearance and her position as the single mother of a half-Turkish son, the people of Kyrenia have double the reason to ostracize her. When the Turks invade, killing Kyrenia's men and forcing the women and children into camps, Koki is forced to keep company with women who've always despised her. During these days of heightened emotion and fear, Koki confronts them and reveals the tale of her unlikely romance.

Several other tales unfold simultaneously, and Lefteri structures the past-present narratives well. Adem, the Turkish shoemaker who fell in love with Koki twelve years earlier, has just arrived in Kyrenia as part of the invasion force and secretly searches for her everywhere he goes. And in a bedsit (studio apartment) in London, an aging British pilot reminisces about his own love affair on Cyprus back in the late '40s, and the daughter he could never acknowledge.

Without gratuitous description, the brutality endured by the villagers is made plain. The colorful title comes from the three possessions one older couple carries out of their home as they flee for their lives. The atmosphere in the house where the women are held prisoner is tense and sorrowful. Where there used to be lively chatter while they prepared their daily meals, now silence prevails; where there was once silence in the peaceful countryside, they now hear aircraft and the sounds of rifle fire.

Yet despite the damage inflicted by the invaders, Cyprus comes alive as a place of immense beauty, and the descriptions of its rich cultural traditions provide a timeless feel. It's a sobering novel with many dark moments, but it's not a depressing one. The overall message is one of survival and hope, and of how love can bridge otherwise impassable boundaries. Some awkwardness arises when lengthy reminiscences are recorded as dialogue, since the style in these sections is too literary to resemble spontaneous conversation, but I went along with it as part of the story.

The quote from a Telegraph review printed on the cover implies it's a romantic beach read, and I can't say that really fits, but it was an involving novel that piqued my interest in the history of Cyprus, which remains a divided country today. Well worth reading.

A Watermelon, a Fish, and a Bible was published in June by Quercus at £10.99.


  1. I love the title of this book and after reading your description I was happy to see that the subject fits an area of interest of mine.....I'm clipping your post and adding it to my little (okay, big) wishlist folder.

  2. I loved the title too. I don't think I did the book justice in my writeup (I wasn't taking notes as I read) but it really was very good.

  3. This does sound like a neat book. And I love reading your reviews. Thanks for sharing!

  4. What a fascinating background for a historical fiction novel. I've read surprisingly few books (especially fiction!) about Cyprus's history - it's interesting to see how this book looks at it...

  5. Thanks so much for bringing this book to my attention, Sarah. It sounds like one I would really enjoy. I haven't read about Cypruis's history before.

  6. Interestingly enough, I recently discovered two or three other novels about Cyprus's history, based on Book Depository's recommendations. After this one, I'm eager to read more.