The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication date: November 2, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Cultural, Historical, Literary
Cyprus is a country literally divided, right down to its capital. In 1960 when the British finally left they repeated their practice of leaving a political vacuum by not resolving issues between existing groups to ensure a peaceful transition. As a result, the island’s population, mixed between a Greek majority and a Turkish minority, lived with simmering resentments until the 1970s. The Island of Missing Trees is a love letter to Cyprus told through the relationship between two teenagers, an ancient fig tree, a taverna, a lonely girl, and the island itself.
The Island of Missing Trees opens in 2010. Ada is 16-years-old and miserable at her school in London. Her father, is a botanist and since the death of her mother a year ago he has immersed himself in his work. When he’s not working he spends all his time in their backyard where there’s a young fig tree. Ada knows her parents are from Cyprus, but they have no relatives in England and she has no knowledge of her Cypriot family. Without her mother her loneliness is overwhelming.
Kostas and Defne Ada’s parents and the Romeo and Juliet of The Island of Missing Trees. He is Greek and she’s Turkish so an open relationship between the two is impossible. Kostas is friends with two men who own a local taverna in the middle of which grows a massive fig tree. They agree to let him meet Defne in private at the restaurant. When war finally breaks out between the Greeks and the Turks in 1974 Kostas’s family has the means to send him out of the country to family in London. Things happen so quickly he is unable to alert Defne so he leaves a message at the taverna. A message she never gets. The tavern and capital are destroyed and while Kostas spends the next two decades in safety, Defne stays in Cyprus. Only in 2000 are they reunited.
This is the family at the core of the novel, but author Elif Shafak goes deeper, rooting the story with a different type of narrator—a fig tree, who for 96 years grew in a taverna in Cyprus and from whom a cutting now grows in London. The tree is the only one telling their story in the first person and it expands The Island of Missing Trees far beyond the limited range of human perspective.
Well…no species is obliged to like another species, that’s for sure. But if you are going to claim, as humans do, to be superior to all life forms, past and present, then you must gain an understanding of the oldest living organisms on earth who were here long before you arrived and will still be here after you have gone.
From the tree we learn of insects that help and hurt, of birds who stop on her branches to share the world beyond her view. We also learn of these same small birds being killed in the hundreds of thousands on Cyprus as a black-market delicacy for Europeans. These are just a few of the aspects that catch the eye and the mind in The Island of Missing Trees. It’s a story that effortlessly swoops from the heights of the generational damage caused by civil war to the depths of the soil where trees communicate between themselves.
With much of my recent reading being the light, fast variety where the focus is getting from A to B it was lovely to read a book where the journey was as important as the destination. At times, I struggled with this, setting The Island of Missing Trees aside, but ultimately, I was grateful for this tender, painful, poignant, story about a country and a people of extraordinary fragility and strength.
For more beautifully written fiction about Cyprus, I recommend Songbirds by Christy Leftiri.
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