Book review: The Island of Missing Trees

The Island of Missing Trees

Elif Shafak


Review: Karen Watkins

Elif Shafak’s beautifully written novel is a rich magical story of forbidden love and division seen through the eyes of two teenagers from opposite sides of a divided Cyprus.

Kostas is Greek and Christian and Defne is Turkish and Muslim.

The couple’s clandestine meetings take place under the sympathetic eyes of gay Cypriots, one Greek, one Turkish, in the safety of the back room of their tavern, the Happy Fig.

Frequented by Greeks, Turks, Armenians and American soldiers, it serves the best food in town, has the best music and the best wine.

The tavern is named for a Ficus Carica, fig tree, growing through a cavity in the roof.

The tree claims the third narrative which at first appears strange but works well later when it witnesses the Cypriotic ethnic and political violence in the mid-1970s and the outcome for future generations and also animals and plants.

The story moves back and forth in time between Cyprus in the 1970s and London in the 2010s where the story begins.

Defne is dead. Husband Kostas is protecting a fig tree against a coming storm. Their daughter Ada is 16 and at breaking point. Why is her father morose? Why did her mum die? She has never visited Cyprus and knows nothing of her family history. When she hears that her mum’s sister, aunt Meryem is coming to visit she asks, why now? Desperate for answers, Ada seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence and find her place in the world.

The story moves at pace, like the delicious layers of baklava, rich with definition but not flaky as the story delves into the family’s past, love, pain, distress, happiness and also tree care and bird slaughter.

Meryem is a wonderful character as she tries to win Ada’s confidence by teaching her about her family heritage, Turkish food and superstitions.

This book was in the top 10 Sunday Times bestsellers.

British Turkish novelist Shafak was shortlisted for the Booker prize for her book 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and is also author of Architect’s Apprentice.