The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

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This was a bit of a spontaneous buy – reading just a few words about it in an email about new books made me think it would be one I’d enjoy. It turned out to be a book I loved. An extraordinary book that’s sad, inspiring, magical and wise. It’s about enduring love; what it means to be an immigrant, someone not living in the country in which you were born; it’s about family history and the passing on or denial of the past.

Elik Shafak is a British-Turkish prize-winning author. The Island of Missing Trees centres around the story of Cyprus and its divisions after the Turkish invasion of 1974, which led to the island being divided into Turkish Cyprus to the north and Greek Cyprus to the south. Before this, the tensions between the Turks and the Greeks was already difficult enough that two young lovers – the Turkish-Muslim Defne and the Greek-Christian Kostas – had to keep their love secret from their families who, if they knew, would disown them.

‘Once upon a memory’ opens the book, ‘lay an island so beautiful … that many travellers … fell in love with it … wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries.’ Such beautiful language makes the tragedy of the battles and divisions that have raged throughout Cyprus for generations all the more vivid and haunting.

The story, however, opens in London with Ada, 16-year-old daughter of Defne and Kostas, who when asked by her teacher about family heirlooms can’t answer, and then starts screaming. Is she screaming because her mother recently died? Is she screaming because her father has been consumed by his grief and become distant from her? Or is she screaming because of all the untold stories, secrets, ghosts and tragedies of generations that lay hidden within her?

The Island of Missing Trees follows Defne and Kostas’ story through Ada, a girl born in London with all traces of her Cypriot heritage apparently wiped away but desperate to be recognised. Much of the story is told through a fig tree (which narrates alternate chapters), grown from a cutting of a tree that stood in the middle of The Happy Fig taverna in Nicosia. A tree that has witnessed all. In 1974 the taverna was run by a gay couple – one Greek Cypriot, one Turkish Cypriot – who were more at risk of discovery than even the young lovers. It was a happy place ‘despite the tensions and troubles besetting the island … It was a place with history and small miracles of its own.’ Yusef and Yiorgos help the young lovers, giving them a quiet corner of the taverna where they won’t be seen. The men are their protectors – but there’s no one to protect them when violence breaks out …

Kostas is persuaded to go to London in 1974 to escape the danger in Cyprus, told it’s only temporary, but  really for good. He writes to Defne but she doesn’t write back. More than 20 years pass but Kostas can’t forget his first and true love. By now he’s become a well-respected botanist and when his work takes him to Cyprus again, he knows he has to find out what happened to Defne. She is working as an archaeologist digging up the remains of all those who died in the war so that the lost are identified, the families can make peace. Or do they make peace? Should some things be left alone?

Despite Defne’s initial reluctance the two become a couple again … secrets, heartbreaks are shared. Both move to London, Defne already pregnant with Ada. It should be ‘happy ever after’ but in real life this rarely happens, and nor does it here. Defne becomes an alcoholic, she can’t forget the past and is haunted by ghosts and the loss of her own country, by the family who rejected her. She and Kostas agree to never speak of the past, of their families, so Ada grows up in ignorance of her heritage, her culture, her wider family. A decision made with love but also ignorance of our need to know where we came from, who we are.

Meanwhile, through the fig tree, the family’s story is told through a weaving of nature: of trees and plants, or animals and insects. It’s a wondrous tale of the continuity and connections in life.

I really loved this book: a book which is sad and troubling but also one of hope and delight.

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