The Island of Missing Trees
By Elif Shafak
Bloomsbury Publishing: Nov. 2, 2021
368 pages, $27.00
I’m guessing you’ve never read a book set in Cypress and that you know little about it beyond its location in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Lebanon. Certainly, that was the case for me. I had no idea that the island nation is divided into a Turkish north and Greek south, with a fence or other barrier separating the two. It even runs through the middle of the capital of Nicosia. As a result, Cypress is the perfect setting for a tale of star-crossed lovers.
The Island of Missing Trees is divided between Cypress in 1974 and London in the 2010s. We first meet Ada Kazantzakis, the teenage daughter of Cypriot immigrants to the UK, and an introverted outsider at her high school. She is struggling with the recent death of her mother, while her father, a reserved botanist, has become lost in his work, exacerbating Ada’s feelings of isolation.
A flashback to Cypress in 1974 fills in the back story of Ada’s parents. Tensions have long existed between the two communities, so eighteen-year-old Greek Cypriot Christian Kostas and seventeen-year-old Turkish Cypriot Muslim Defne are forced to meet surreptitiously. Fortunately, they encounter the owners of a country tavern called The Happy Fig, Yiorgos and Yusuf, who also happen to be Greek and Turkish. Sympathizing with the young lovers, the partners offer them a back room as a sanctuary. The Happy Fig is a boisterous meeting place for locals, visitors, and UN peacekeepers.
The Island of Missing Trees, British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s follow-up to her Booker Prize shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (2019), uses this fraught love story to explore issues of migration and family trauma, with the island’s complex history and ecology as a backdrop.
The multi-level plot moves back and forth in time and place, and I don’t want to reveal too much beyond the main characters and the core conflicts. What is most unusual about The Island of the Missing Trees is a third strand narrated by the fig tree that grows in the center of the tavern and up through the roof. It’s disconcerting at first, but the fig has seen much in its century-long life and provides a unique viewpoint on the island, its people, and the love story that takes place beneath its branches.
When Kostas leaves the island, he takes a cutting from the fig tree and smuggles it into the UK in his luggage. Replanted in the back yard of his home, it adapts to the British climate thanks to Kostas’ devoted care. Ada grows up wondering about her father’s obsession with what appears to be just another tree.
The fig tree is both a Greek chorus and a symbol for immigrants. It can be brought to new lands and replanted, and with care it can thrive. But its roots are always in the homeland. In time, its branches extend, and it produces fruit that is as sweet as ever, but perhaps with a slightly different flavor, owing to the different soil and climate. She explains, “I liked my new home in London. I worked hard to fit in, to belong… [i]t would take seven years to yield fruit again. Because that is what migrations do to us: when you leave your home for unknown shores, you don’t simply carry on as before; a part of you dies inside so that another part can start all over again.”
The Island of the Missing Trees is a rich and absorbing story of love in a time of civil war, migration and adaptation, and the tenacity of family history and trauma that immigrants carry with them, even in the best of circumstances.
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