Book Review: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Told from several points of view, one of them being a fig tree, this story delves into a divided postcolonial Cyprus, mapping out the beginnings and ends of conflict, from acts of physical violence, to the internal emotional scars that remain decades and thousands of miles away.

The Island of Missing Trees tells the story of Kostas and Defne – a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot – who meet in secret at the taverna The Happy Fig and declare their love. When war breaks out, the young couple are driven apart for years, and the fig tree watches the taverna fall to ruin. In parallel we have the story of Ada – the daughter of Kostas and Defne – who lives with her father in London. Defne, we learn very early on, has died, and both Kostas and Ada are struggling to come to terms with their grief. In their garden, a fig tree watches them – a cutting from the Cypriot original.

That’s a lot going on, and this book has many facets. It is sometimes billed as a love story – and I agree, but it is a love story in the widest sense. Not really a romance between the two protagonists. Not a book where the end goal is a relationship. Rather an exploration of love between humans and humans, and between humans and nature, and between humans and culture, and what happens to that love when it is mired in a context of violence and hate.

There are some really sweet, endearing and wholesome moments, though they usually do have a backdrop of sadness. The fig tree trusting Kostas completely as he buries her in the garden to save her from the London winter’s cold. Ada learning about her Cypriot roots from her Aunt Meryem through food, gradually beginning to bond with her after years of resenting her mother’s family for not even coming to her funeral. Kostas’ care for animals and the natural environment in his homeland.

The characters are interesting and well fleshed out. Kostas’ is defined by his sweetness and love of nature. Ada has a convincing teenage voice, both in speech and in her internal narrative, which is often very funny while also tremendously serious. Her tone is a perfect counterpoint to the effusive and traditionalist Aunt Meryem, and their scenes together have a lot of humour and heart. I particularly liked the little moment where Aunt Meryem reluctantly asks Ada for help retrieving a lost app on her phone, which was used for exorcising demons… saving the app owner’s time in not having to sort the exorcism themselves.

This book was one of those ones that I borrowed from the library at the same time as too many others, read half of at the point my borrowing time was up, re-borrowed the e-book, and finally managed to finish it one day before the loan was due. That’s no reflection on the quality of the book – it is honestly excellent. I suppose the only thing it might reflect is that the book is heart-wrenchingly sad – such that sometimes I had to put it down in favour of a lighter or more page-turning read.

2 responses to “Book Review: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak”

  1. I really want to read this. They discussed it on Between the Covers on the BBC this week and it sounded beautiful. Lovely review, Emma.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jan – it is a very beautiful book, I hope you enjoy it.

      Like

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