THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES
By Elif Shafak
The Island of Missing Trees is the latest published work of Elif Shafak, author of 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World. It was released in November of 2021, and has since been well received; it’s made its way into the book club of one Ms Reese Witherspoon, which is how my work book club came across it.
I bought 10 Minutes a couple of summers ago but have yet to pick it up. Missing Trees is my first venture into Shafak’s work. The story is very encompassing and gets stronger as it goes on, for sure, but I can’t bring myself to rate Missing Trees beyond three stars.
The novel opens with a view of Cyprus – war torn and haunted. In present day UK, we meet Ada, a 16-year-old girl who is grieving the loss of her mother, who has died within the last year. While a teacher dispenses a family tree project to Ada and other students, Ada finds herself bursting into an inexplicably long fit of screams, to the horror, shock, and even amusement, of her classmates.
Her dad, Kostas, is also grieving his wife/Ada’s mother, and has extracted himself from parenthood and lodged himself firmly into his work. He is an arborist, and we find him preparing his treasured fig tree for a storm. The fig tree, brought to London from Cyprus, is sentient, and displays a great deal of affection to Kostas, and pity towards Ada.
As Kostas and Ada settle in for the storm, the fig tree narrates the story of Kostas and his late wife, Defne, as young lovers in Cyrpus. He is Greek, and she was Turkish. Boiling tensions meant that the two had to keep their affair private. In fleeting moments and hidden sanctuaries, the pair find time to be authentically free together – but peace is a fragile thing in Cyprus in the 1970’s, and soon, the two are torn apart.
The Island of Missing Trees tells the story of Kostas and Defne, and how they come to view their own past, and how that in turn effects their daughters impression of her own identity.
Main characters Kostas and Defne take different forms as we see different iterations of them throughout their lives. For me, Kostas was a really vivid character, and I got a really clear picture of him and his mannerisms. I felt the same way towards Ada, and Defne’s sister who makes an appearance in present day chapters.
Thinking on it now, I think the characters were a strong aspect of this novel. That said, I just didn’t really like Ada very much? Maybe it was because of what she represented: I was starting to really enjoy the chapters taking place between Defne and Kostas in the 1970s, and Ada’s chapters acted as something of an interruption for me. I found her story to be weak compared to the stories told in the 70s.
All in, this novel is really largely character driven. Kostas and Defne are really interesting characters to follow as they traverse their way through history in the making. It’s not that I really strongly disliked Ada’s chapters – maybe I just wish we had more time with her?
Shamefully, I didn’t know much about the civil war between the Greeks and Turks that took place in Cyprus. I’ve never been there myself, but it’s reputation to me my whole life has always been idyllic summer get away location.
Shafak’s accounts of the tensions, violence, and atrocities were a fascinating and accessible way to dispel my ignorance. When we first meet the young Defne and Kostas, trouble is brewing, and we accompany them through Cyprus until the island breaks out in all out war.
If you are ignorant to this topic like I am, the stories presented in this novel are a good first step to familiarising yourself of the effects of this war.
What I didn’t like
I feel like this review has been very kind to this book, so why don’t I rate it so highly?
Maybe I simply couldn’t connect with it. I found it hard to read this book and plain and simply didn’t enjoy it like I wanted to.
For that reason, I’d probably just advise potential readers that this book simply wasn’t for me. There were aspects I enjoyed, and now that time has passed between now and my first read of it, I can’t really think of anything that really irked me about it.
So, if you’re interested in reading a romantic, character driven account of a horrible sliver of history, then this book will hopefully be more your speed than it was mine.
One thing this book did include that I loved, that I always love, was of course detailed descriptions of food. The story is largely told through the perspective of a fig tree who is well aware of the sweet flavours and juicy texture of her own fruits.
Food, in the Missing Trees, is used as something connective. Kostas and Defne find a tavern co-owned by a Greek and a Turk; Kostas and Defne find safe solace in the privacy they can enjoy here alongside ample amounts of food from both of their cultures.
Lated on, Defne’s sister seeks to connect Ada to her heritage by bringing a taste of Cyprus to her London kitchen. Defne’s sister remarks to Ada that many Turkish foods have their Greek equivalents, similar dishes called by different names with subtle differences – connecting Ada to both parts of her, the Greek and the Turkish.
Though I struggled to connect with this novel for the most part, these descriptions of food and what they mean to the characters and their cultures brought me back in. You will absolutely catch me making oven roasted figs with aniseed ice cream, as loved by Defne and her family.
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