Review: The Island Of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The Island Of Missing Trees begins by introducing us to its titular island, a place coveted by all who visit it. It’s also a divided island with a divided city. At first I thought this might be an allegorical island — a stand in for Berlin, or Jerusalem, or India and Pakistan, or any places separated by borders — but it turns out to be the very real Cyprus and the very real divided city of Nicosia, split down the middle when Turkey invaded in 1974 following a Greek-backed coup d’état. The rent has left painful physical and psychological scars. The disembodied narrator shows us the remains of two men at the bottom of a well, the identity of whom enervates the early part of this story.

Next the book introduces us to Ada Kazantzakis, 16 and on her last day of school for the year in London in the “late 2010s” (that’s actually the instruction given, a curiously hazy detail). Her Greek Cypriot father Kostas is a botanist, her Turkish Cypriot mother Defne died a year ago. As well as all the usual teenage growing pains, Ada has a unique problem, “she could detect other people’s sadnesses” and “she had suspected that she carried within a sadness that was not quite her own”. When prompted by her teacher to speak in class, she has a kind of panic attack, frozen and screaming for minutes upon minutes. Meanwhile at home Kostas is burying their fig tree, a technique to protect it from the cold of the English winter. That fig tree, which gives Ada “the creeps”, is the narrator of half of this story, reflecting on what it is like to be a tree, and filling in gaps in the human’s story. The sudden arrival of Ada’s aunt Meryem prompts the characters to delve into how they came to be where they are, and the narrative loops back to 1974 when Defne and Kostas were falling in love in Nicosia. I felt for the characters, even if I wasn’t always convinced by them. I found it an engaging, even page-turning, plot.

The Island Of Missing Trees largely serves to illuminate the way that trauma is passed down through generations. It carefully unspools the threads of exactly how the child of migrants who has never been to the land of her parent’s birth might be affected by the horrors and sadnesses they experienced. When the fig tree is taken to England, she doesn’t bear fruit for seven years, mirroring the unmoored-ness of her human companions:

People from troubled islands can never be normal … the ground that feels rock hard to others is choppy waters for our kind.

The novel is invested in those who fight cruelty and atrocity, the healers and memory keepers, such as the Committee for Missing Persons that Defne works for. It above all puts faith in the power of love and hope:

You don’t fall in love in the midst of a civil war, when you are hemmed in by carnage and by hatred on all sides. You run away, as fast as your legs can carry your fears, seeking basic survival and nothing else … Love is the bold affirmation of hope. You don’t embrace hope when death and destruction are in command … And yet there they were, the two of them.

Migratory butterflies recur as a symbol of this hope. “What mattered most was not the final destination,” the tree tells us, “But to be on the move, searching, changing, becoming”. These are sweeping, grandiose sentiments and mostly they worked to evoke the same feelings.

The perspective of the tree doesn’t convince as much. This is a completely omniscient, perfectly moral tree, as concerned about homelessness on the streets of London and the nature of war between humans as the turn of the seasons and her human minders. There are attempts to explain her perception, and musings on the cultural and ecological worlds of trees, but the novel seems uninterested in the limitations or possibilities of being a tree. Unfortunately the lovely idea of trees sharing resources through fungal networks, much used from Avatar to the BBC, seems on uncertain ground. It is a tricky thing, to inhabit another being, let alone a plant, but other writers have revealed more in the attempt, like Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris or Ricard Powers in The Overstory. A late twist in the narrative, heavily foregrounded from the very beginning, doesn’t do much to improve things in hindsight.

The writing is dreamy, soft, hazy, like the light of a Mediterranean dusk and it drips with treacly similes and characterisations like an overripe ripe fig. I struggled with the lack of ambiguity, the lack of space for a reader to bring themselves, which is tough when your topic is war, borders, intolerance. But eventually I came to admire this broad storytelling. War is an ugly, brutal thing, but also in many ways simple. Why not attack it with something equally simple, but joyful and sentimental, and alive?

Gay rating: 3/5 for major queer characters.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s