The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

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Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

In The Bastard of Istanbul, a mysterious curse kills one family’s men before their time; 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World tells the story of a sex worker dying in a rubbish bin; in Honour, a Turkish family tries to put down roots in the UK. Tough themes, lives between countries and cultures and a hint of magical realism are all trademarks of Elif Shafak’s work. So too in The Island of Missing Trees.

The novel starts, literally, with a scream. Minutes before the start of the Christmas holidays, sixteen-year-old Ada begins to scream in history class; experiencing a complete loss of control, she can’t stop until she runs out of voice to make any more sound. No one knows what has come upon her, least of all Ada. However, the world soon finds out about the incident as it’s captured on smartphones and makes its rounds on social media. The van Gogh memes are inevitable.

Ada’s home, in contrast, is drowned by a melancholic silence: after her mother Defne’s recent death, she has been left alone with her father Kostas, a botanist who feels more at home communicating with the fig tree in the garden than his daughter. This dynamic is forced to change as Defne’s sister, Meryem, arrives to stay from her native Cyprus, sending the family down memory lane.

The novel alternates between a sorrowful London of the late 2010s and a troubled Cyprus of the 1970s. In the latter, Defne — a Turkish Cypriot — and Kostas — a Greek Cypriot — find themselves desperately in love with each other. On an island torn by civil war, the new ethnic dividing lines between people taint their relationship, forcing them to hide it. Through the past and the present, Shafak unearths the complexities of these characters’ histories, desperately adrift, and their attempts to establish themselves in new realities.

That, however, omits the true star of the story: a fig tree that is the centerpiece in a tavern in Nicosia and then finds itself re-growing from a cutting in a London backgarden. The chapters alternate between human and arboreal narration, and it is the latter that elevates novel beyond human worries. The fig observes what humans too often miss: how war affects nature, how trees communicate and feel and how beyond the human-made world there is a much more magical system of interconnected plants and animals. One of the most striking moments in the novel is the fig’s explanation of how the smell of freshly-cut grass, a sign of the vitality of nature for so many people, is in fact the grass crying out as it is violated. Shafak proves herself a fine nature writer.

However, just as humans are left behind nature’s complexity in the fig’s narration, the human characters in the novel are left behind when it comes to their narrative power compared to the tree. Meryem, for example, speaks in never-ending idioms. This is amusing at first, but she soon evolves into something of a walking cliché. When she takes over Kostas’s and Ada’s kitchen with her Turkish Cypriot cooking, I found myself asking if there really wasn’t more to her than a kind of symbol of a romanticized Mediterranean woman. Despite her attention-grabbing introduction, Ada, too, remains superficial in the end; it’s as if her angst is brushed off and the reader is presented simply with an eye-rolling teenager complete with a teenage crush. What about the power of social media to bully and to shame? All of this is bypassed with brief mentions of Ada feeling the metaphorical weight of her phone.

There are hints at a more complex exploration of intergenerational understanding and trauma, but ultimately Shafak doesn’t go down that path. I wish she had; the complex aftermath of civil war is tackled perceptively on a general level — Defne works on a team searching for missing bodies — but the novel would have benefitted of delving further into the human fall-out.

That said, in many ways The Island of Missing Trees is a tender, harrowing book where layer after layer of history is peeled back, in particular when it comes to nature. I’m not a botanist by any means, but the fig tree has convinced me that it’s an endlessly interesting way to live.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees (Viking, 2021). 978-0241434994, 320 pp., hardback.

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