The Island Of Missing Trees – Elif Shafak

There aren’t many books where a tree is one of the main protagonists. Normally, I’d find that kind of anthropomorphising a bit childish, but this is no Whomping Willow. The fig tree speaks mostly as a genuine actor in the story. Occasionally she dips into being a contrivance, but I didn’t mind those parts too much as, overall, there is a slow, luxurious poetry about her and her essence allows the narrative to spread out in space and time in an organic, connected way that an omniscient human speaker wouldn’t quite manage.

The story begins with a panorama of Cyprus, the warm, colourful flora and fauna still thriving to a degree despite the island having been torn in two by the partition. It shows us the devastating final resting place of two men who feature so magnificently in the book, as aides to forbidden young love, as the epitome of human conviviality that can transcend borders or tribes, as the visible threat to unequivocal beliefs.

The main humans in the book now live in London, England, which by contrast to Cyprus, is in the midst of a cold winter storm that is raging across the country. A father and teenage daughter, both grieving for the recent loss of their wife/mother, are both unable to communicate with each other, until Ada’s maternal aunt Meryem manages, almost Mary Poppins like, to get the final flight into the country for a visit in the Christmas holidays.

I really love reading fictional books that teach me the history of a place or a people, because, when they’re good, I’m taught something that feels very much alive and engaging. I felt that with Half Of A Yellow Sun, where I was taken on a powerful, tragic tour of Nigeria’s recent past by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And this book does that too. Not quite with the same scope and drama, but still, it allowed me to dip my toes into a view of Cyprus that I’m keen to broaden.

Partition too, is something I’m interested in, being a child of Indian parents who were both born before lines were drawn arbitrarily on a map chopping up the country. In this book, Ada’s parents had come geographically from a close neighbourhood, but tribally from across the divide, even before a physical border was thrown up. Because of a pact made by her parents to not dwell on the past, Ada knows nothing of family backgrounds, and only knows the anger of seeing no-one at her mother’s funeral. Aunt Meryem initially takes the brunt of that anger but slowly helps to bridge the aching silence between the daughter and her father, Kostas.

As readers, we’re privy to a wider knowledge than Ada. The three main timelines braid and intertwine, so with her travails as a teenager in the late 2010s, we can see her parents as teenagers themselves in 1974 when the sectarian violence was at its height and the dividing line was created. In between, weaves the early 2000s where Kostas and Ada’s mother Defne find each other again as adults during a period of tentative reconciliation for Cyprus.

The book mixes superstition and science, and shows how each can work as a crutch and a closed door. It reveals how trauma will leave its scars, on trees, on birds and on people, no matter how long the time period. It also displays the hope of the healing that is possible if there is an attempt at rapprochement, if history is not hidden, but unearthed and reconnected with the present, if doors are left ajar.

The Island Of Missing Trees is a page-turner, and at the same time contains a lot of lush poetic imagery.

‘Truth is a rhizome – an underground plant stem with lateral shoots. You have to dig deep to reach it and, once unearthed, you have to treat it with respect’.

It begins like a fairy tale and ends like a myth and I loved it.

4 thoughts on “The Island Of Missing Trees – Elif Shafak”

  1. Hello Rita,

    I was given an excellent book recently called The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees by, Robert Penn. I also loved the Majic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton as a child. Adichie has been giving the Reith Lecture today called The Four Freedoms, very absorbing. Can be found on BBC Sounds.


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