Elif Shafak is the sweetheart of Booksagram, in every corner and almost daily you’ll see someone praising one of her books. She is a prolific writer with broad a spectrum of interests, reflected in her work. Previous to this, I had only read one other book by Elif Shafak (although I own quite a few!) 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World, and unfortunately, I didn’t get along with it. Not to be deterred, and exhorted by my fellow readers, I borrowed The Island of Missing Trees from my local library, her most recent offering.
The Island of Missing Trees is set between the UK and Cyprus. It’s the story of childhood sweethearts Defne, Turkish Cypriot, and Kostas, Greek Cypriot, who fall in love during the height of ethnic tensions on the island. Both would be disowned by their families if their relationship is ever discovered, so instead they meet in secret, in the back room of a Tavern, who’s owners have their own secrets, and inside which grows a magnificent fig Tree, her leaves stretching through a cavity in the roof, witnessing their forbidden love, and when war breaks out, their separation. Decades later, Kostas, a Botanist now living in London, returns to the island looking for Daphne. Sixteen years later Ada Kazantzakis, their daughter wonders at her father’s strange relationship with the Ficus carica growing in their garden. She knows its from Cyprus, but nothing else about the island or her family, until an estranged maternal aunt visits them during the winter break.
There are things I completely loved about this book. The anthropomorphic fig tree, with her centuries old wisdom, her information about other trees and animals and her story telling about Cyprus. For me it was a creative way to include information that might otherwise seem inconsistent within fiction. The story is well researched and rooted in actual historical events, I was intrigued by the history of Cyprus, something I confess knowing very little about. I also enjoyed the way the narrative was constructed, jumping from the past to present and interspersed with the voice of the Fig. I have to confess I thought the story dealing with the past was more appealing than the present, but the style undoubtedly was engaging and kept this reader interested. Kostas and Defne’s love story, is both beautiful and tragic, echoing much of the world around them.
I found the subplot of the story a little more difficult to get along with. Ada, their daughter is dealing with her own emotional journey when her maternal aunt comes to stay with them. Meryem, helps Ada learn about her parents traumatic past. She is presented as the antithesis of Ada and Defne, but over the course of the book she offers them some form of healing through her stories. My issue with this part of the book was that I found most of the characters lacking. Other than the narrations of the fig, I found the plot predictable and the characters two-dimensional and contrived, particularly the aunt with her cliches and stilted dialogue. For me, the fig carried this story. I found the information about the parrot, the mouse and even mosquitoes more titillating than the characters.
With everything said and done I enjoyed reading this book. The fact that I wanted more is a sign I was invested in the characters. Elif Shafak is an ambitious writer and in this book, she deals with topics such as race, identity, loss, grief and intergenerational trauma. She does all of this with warmth and humour and in the inimitable style, much loved by readers.
Do let me know below what you thought of this book, or I you’ve read anything else by Elif Shafak you’d recommend to me.