An Island Divided

Off the coast of Turkey, in the Aegean Sea, an island nation is nestled. Known as the birthplace of the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, and of Adonis, Cyprus is a bedrock of civilization, the house of millennia of history. It is a rich archeological site that boasts some of the oldest water wells in the world, and the 9,500 years old remains of a cat. Its rich historical landscape also featured kingdoms, castles, and ruins. Due to its strategic location, it was part of different empires, such as the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Egyptian Empire, and Alexander the Great’s Empire. Its long and storied history of subjugation continued with the Byzantine, Ottoman, and British Empires. The island finally attained its independence on August 16, 1960, after the tri-partite Zürich and London Agreement was signed by the United Kingdom, Greece, and Turkey. As history has demonstrated, independence was not always an assurance of everlasting peace and prosperity. Cyprus’ turbulent contemporary history steals the spotlight in Elif Shafak’s latest literary comeback, The Island of Missing Trees; this was her first major work since her Booker Prize-shortlisted work, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

Once upon a memory, at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, there lay an island so beautiful and blue that the many travellers, pilgrims, crusaders and merchants who fell in love with it either wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes al the way back to their own countries.”

Shafak haunts the reader’s imagination with rich and vivid images of Cyprus. However, The Island of Missing Trees commenced in 2010s London where the readers were introduced to young teenager Ada Kazantzakis. Ada, baptized as Aditsa, recently lost her mother, Defne, and was having trouble coping with her school and life in general. The pressure that was enveloping her percolated, resulting in a scene at her history class. The image, uploaded by her tech-savvy peers, would go, to use the term that has become ubiquitous, “viral”. To any teenager, there is nothing more humiliating than finding one’s self in the middle of a commotion in the online world, for all the wrong reasons. But perhaps it was not all for the wrong reasons?

Exacerbating matters for Ada was the situation in her household. Ada’s father, Kostas, was a botanist who has earned a reputation for his studies of trees in various parts of the world, but in particular, those of his homeland, Cyprus. Following his wife’s demise, a chasm has subtly developed between him and his daughter. As they grieve in their own way, father and daughter were withdrawing from each other’s life. He found himself more and more invested in his work, barely noticing the changes that were happening in his daughter’s life. A visit to the principal’s office would slowly reel him back into his domestic life. As they navigate uncharted waters, Ada and Kostas must learn to rely upon each other. To get to that point, however, they must reckon with the past and hurdle the questions that lurk on the darkest corners of memory.

“He knew, even back then, that she was prone to bouts of melancholy. It came to her in successive waves, an ebb and flow. When the first wave arrived, barely touching her toes, it was so light and translucent a ripple that you might be forgiven for thinking it insignificant, that it would vanish soon, leaving no trace. But then followed another wave, and the next one, rising as far as her ankles, and the one after that covering her knees, and before you knew it she was immersed in liquid pain, up to her neck, drowning. That’s how depression sucked her in.”

~ Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees

An unexpected guest from the distant past would bring to the fore these ghosts that have long been haunting Kostas, and by extension, Ada. Defne’s sister, Meryem boarded the first flight from Cyprus. Following the death of their mother, she no longer has to uphold the promise she made to her mother. Without much of a preamble, she barged into the life of her niece. Ada was disoriented and her initial reaction was resentment. For years, none of her Cypriot relatives ever made contact with them. No one bothered to mourn with Kostas and Ada during Defne’s death. Ada barely knew her parent’s former life and here comes her maternal aunt, entering her life as though nothing ever happened. Unbeknownst to her daughter, Defne has been updating Meryem about Ada and her life in London. However, will they be able to make up for the lost time?

With the introduction of Meryem, the story diverged as a new plotline started to emerge. Shafak transported the readers to 1970s Cyprus. Following the island nation’s declaration of independence, the peace that everyone was wishing for did not materialize. Cultural divisions resulted in escalating tensions between the two major factions: the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots. Amidst this maelstrom, the romance between Defne and Kostas started to flourish in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia. However, they cannot show their relationship in public lest they bear the brunt of the prying public eyes. They had to keep it to themselves. She was of Turkish descent while he was of Greek descent and the cultural divide was too great to overcome. It was the classic story of forbidden love. But this was no Romeo and Juliet story.

Despite the divide, the young lovers found reprieve in the form of a tavern, The Happy Fig, and its owners, Yiorgos and Yusuf. Opened in 1955, The Happy Fig was popular among the locals, UN soldiers, and travelers. It also provided the level of anonymity that Defne and Kostas required. It was their small piece of heaven. Bearing witness to their blossoming love story is the tavern’s resident parrot Chico and by the fig tree growing in the middle of the establishment and from which the tavern derived its name. The fig tree also bore witness to the events that unfolded around them, from the escalation of tension between the two sides to Nicosia becoming the only divided capital in the world. Greece and Turkey got involved in the nation’s struggles for sovereignty, furthering the existing cultural divide. In this struggle, many have lost their lives, with some never found again.

Geopolitics is prevalent in Shafak’s works. The Island of Missing Trees also touched base on the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus. Established in 1981 by the leaders of both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, with the participation of the United Nations, the committee plays a seminal and pivotal role in retrieving, identifying, and returning to their families, the remains of members of both communities who went missing during the inter-communal fighting of 1963 to 1964 and of the 1974 coup. Some of the bodies were retrieved buried under trees, submerged in wells, or left to rot on the roadside. Unfortunately, Cyprus remains divided in the contemporary. The Turkish Cypriots have occupied the northeastern portion of the island and have established the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

“Life below the surface is neither simple nor monotonous. The subterranean, contrary to what most people think, is bustling with activity. As you tunnel deep down, you might be surprised to see the soil take on unexpected shades. Rusty red, soft peach, warm mustard, lime green, rich turquoise … Humans teach their children to paint the earth in one colour alone. They imagine the sky in blue, the grass in green, the sun in yellow and the earth entirely in brown. If they only knew they have rainbows under their feet.”

~ Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees

Before settling in London, Kostas plucked a sapling of the same fig tree and replanted it in their new English backyard. Growing up alongside Ada, the voice of this fig tree, scientific name Ficus carica, would take up the novel’s third narrative strand. It also witnessed how Kostas and Ada coped with their grief. The fig tree’s presence in the novel was driven by various studies and observations positing that trees can feel; for further reading, do check the sources cited by Shafak in the Note to the Reader. Trees were also an important element of Cyprus. Its verdant landscape was one of its features that first captivated travelers, and conquerors. Fig trees, native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, have been cultivated for millennia. It was no surprise that the fig tree was also the primary mouthpiece for Cypriot history. Interestingly, fig trees are also known to represent love.

The Island of Missing Trees is a multifaceted novel that underlined several seminal subjects. At the onset, Shafak regaled the readers with the details of the struggles of migrants in a new country, through the Kazantzakises and the fig tree. The tree was also the figurative thread that linked the Kazantzakises with their homeland. It was not only human migration that was underscored for the novel lightly touched base with the migration of bats and butterflies. Through Ada, Shafak explored a familiar theme, the plight of a generation born to migrant parents. Identity, and the yearning to understand one’s roots were vividly tackled. There was a gaping wound left by the big question mark on her identity. With a dark history, generational trauma inevitably trickled into the narrative. The novel also captured how this trauma eventually develop into depression. Escapism is also prevalent and worse, some resort to substance abuse, tonics to the horrible memories of atrocities. Memory can be such a double-edged sword.

The differences between generations were portrayed through the interactions between Meryem and Ada. Meryem was superstitious while her niece was practical. Strong storms, for instance, were rationalized by Meryem as caused by God’s wrath while Ada saw it as an offshoot of climate change. Meryem was a time capsule, a treasure trove of memories. Ada, on the other hand, can easily access information through the world wide web. The Internet further highlighted the generational gap. Having a tree as a third character, eco-awareness was another subject that the novel underlined. Kostas’ studies became part and parcel of the story. His studies also took him to his homeland where he advocated for the cultivation of native trees such as the fig tree rather than non-native trees such as eucalyptus. Non-native trees can become invasive and can alter the ecosystem, sometimes to devastating results not palpable to the eye.

Shafak’s prose was complemented by keen attention to details which made the world of flora and fauna come alive. This made up for the thin plot. Her portrayal of the arboreal world was scintillating, capturing the readers’ attention and imagination with her rumination on roots, the life of bees, the sights and sounds of life teeming under the tree’s shades. The interactions of the tree with its neighbors and surroundings were also vividly captured by Shafak. While it is often not seen or appreciated by the eye, it was an excitable ecosystem, a microcosm of the world beyond the tavern. She made Cyprus’ ecology an equally important part of the novel.

“Love is the bold affirmation of hope. You don’t embrace hope when death and destruction are in command. You don’t put on your best dress and tuck a flower in your hair when you are surrounded by ruins and shards. You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood.”

~ Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees

One stellar aspect of Shafak’s prose is her ability to capture the atmosphere of the time. She made the readers travel through time as vivid images of 1970s Cyprus were projected by the descriptive quality of her prose. Metaphors were subtly woven into the novel’s rich tapestry. The destruction of trees is an allegory of the destruction of human lives while the missing trees are allusions to those who went missing during the upheavals. It cannot be denied that Shafak’s latest novel was brimming with ambition. The Island of Missing Trees was rife with ideas and themes. However, the story crumbles under its weight. Some of the ideas and themes that Shafak played with were underdeveloped, such as the opening sequence of Ada going viral. There were plotholes and some concerns were left unanswered.

The novel also suffered from constant changes in perspectives. This highlighted the essential weakness of the personification of the fig tree. While Shafak’s depiction of the ecosystem was scintillating, the same cannot be said on how she “humanized” the fig tree. Its love for Kostas, and consequently, silent disdain for Defne, was forced. The anthropomorphic fig tree gave the novel a distinct texture although the intention was to underline how trees can have emotions. However, Shafak’s execution failed to meet the ambition. It didn’t help that Kostas’ voice was muted, hence, he came across as passive.

Despite its blunders and impressionable characters, The Island of Missing Trees had its bright spots. It was a timely and seminal story about our roots. It was about memory and how it continues to impact the present and even the future. It was about displacement, migration, escapism, and even mental health. It was about our differences and how it continues to divide us. It was a lot of things integrated with geopolitics, and romance. Shafak is always at her best exploring geopolitics, especially where her homeland is involved. An anthropomorphic fig tree made the story riveting, although its overall impact was mixed. It was about Cyprus. It was about its trees. It was about its people. The Island of Missing Trees is trademark Elif Shafak.

Ratings

64%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

My previous experience with The Bastard of Istanbul somehow left a bitter aftertaste. It was a book I was really looking forward to. Unfortunately, several blunders by Shafak made the experience a little less than stellar. This was the reason that I was not too keen on her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees when news of its 2021 release filled my timeline. I overcame my apprehensions after I came across several convincing reviews of the book. Besides, I was intrigued by the novel’s central theme: Cyprus’ history. For sure, I admire Shafak’s ambitiousness of grappling with geopolitics, history, and memory. Her ambition was prominently displayed in the three novels I have read so far. It was breathtaking and these books were great primers to history classes. However, what always impairs my appreciation of her novels was her integration of certain magical elements. It didn’t work in The Bastard of Istanbul and again, it didn’t work in The Island of Missing Trees. The voice of the fig tree was interesting but it was inconsistent. There were parts that were brilliant but there were also parts that were unimpressionable.

Book Specs

Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 343
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Asian Literature

Synopsis

Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic, chili peppers, and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness to their hushed, happy meetings and eventually, to their silent, surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns. He is a botanist looking for native species, but really, he’s searching for lost love.

Years later a Ficus carica grows in the back garden of a house in London where Ada Kazantzakis lives. This tree is her only connection to an island she has never visited – her only connection to her family’s troubled history and her complex identity as she seeks to untangle years of secrets to find her place in the world.

A moving, beautifully written, and delicately constructed story of love, division, transcendence, history, and eco-consciousness, The Island of Missing Trees is Elif Shafak’s best work yet.

About the Author

To learn more about Elif Shafak, click here.