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The Island of Missing Trees


The Island of Missing Trees

Elif Shafak, the Booker-shortlisted author of 10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD, has penned another masterpiece. In THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES, a single love bewitches a young couple so intensely that their story has the power to unravel the legacies of their descendants as well.

A Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, two teenagers focusing only on finding love and adventure to enrich their yearning hearts, meet at a taverna hidden amongst cascades of herbs and overgrown trees. Kostas and Defne build their strong attraction to each other amidst one particular fig tree, which stretches through the taverna’s roof and bears witness to the chapters of their relationship. The tree survives even as war breaks out, even as the capital is reduced to rubble, and even when the teens vanish. Decades later, Kostas, now a botanist looking for native species, returns to this place, searching for his lost love.

"Perhaps unwittingly, Shafak has written a novel that helps us identify and reclaim our love of the world even in the midst of unspeakable sadness and difficulty."

The story of broken love then plants roots in London. Years later, a Ficus carica in Ada Kazantzakis’ backyard grows and shadows an urban jumble. Coming from the tree that stood witness to Kostas and Defne’s forbidden love, it is Ada’s only connection to an island she has never even visited, to her troubled family history and its effect on her complicated personal life. Ada uses it as a stepping stone to untangle the secrets of earlier generations and find her own place in the world. She attempts to transcend the call of past culture and thinking in order to find happiness and cement her identity in the time she calls the present.

“Perhaps what they said about happiness was true, after all: it was contagious. In a tavern named The Happy Fig, with a blooming tree at the centre, it was hard not to feel hopeful. I know I should not be saying this, I know it is wrong of me, unloving and ungrateful, but since that fateful afternoon many years ago there have been more than a few times when I’ve regretted meeting Defne and I wished she had never crossed our threshold. Maybe then our beautiful tavern would not have been consumed by flames, destroyed. Maybe I would still be that same happy tree.”

The pain of Kostas’ yearning and regret are palpable, and Shafak makes him a very engaging and heartfelt personage of love everlasting, even in all its painfulness. The 1974 political altercations that led his country to war notwithstanding, the complications and restrictions against which Defne and Kostas’ relationship rebelled are not the only obstacles they tried to remove. THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES has all the elements of a tragic love story, a raging war-time drama, and an important attempt to use the past to define and explain the present.

How the trees create a through line from one generation to another is perhaps the most moving part of the book. It’s a warning and a respite from the horrors of the natural world that we are witness to every day. Somehow nature finds a way to connect and enrich us and survive trauma that we humans find intolerable. The idea of Ada having that tree as a reminder of her connection to her family is a wonderful symbol of survival and redemption and the fact that some things find a way to adapt and move into the future with remarkable stability and determination.

THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES is the perfect story for these changing times, but first and foremost it’s an important document of the history of Turkey. It combines large social issues with rather common yet heart-wrenching ones. In the course of doing so, it educates and elevates our hearts and minds well beyond the pettiness of our present-day pandemic discourse. Perhaps unwittingly, Shafak has written a novel that helps us identify and reclaim our love of the world even in the midst of unspeakable sadness and difficulty.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on November 19, 2021

The Island of Missing Trees
by Elif Shafak

  • Publication Date: November 2, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1635578590
  • ISBN-13: 9781635578591