The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

About the author:
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and the most widely read female author in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels. Her work has been translated into fifty languages. Shafak holds a PhD in political science and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK, including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow. She is a member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy and a founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations). An advocate for women’s rights, LGBT rights and freedom of speech, Shafak is an inspiring public speaker and twice a TED Global speaker, each time receiving a standing ovation. Shafak contributes to major publications around the world and she has been awarded the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017 she was chosen by Politico as one of the twelve people who would make the world better. She has judged numerous literary prizes and is chairing the Wellcome Prize 2019.

Plot summary:

Set between 1970s in Cyprus, 2000s in Cyprus and 2010s in London, The Island of Missing Trees is a book that explores love, loss, roots, war and belonging through the lens of trees. The story is told through chapters that alternates between timelines, narrators and leads us through the arc of the love story.

In 1974, two teenagers from opposite sides of an island, Greek and Turkish, meet and fall in love. In the centre of this love story is a tavern in the city Cyprus, one they both call home. The tavern is the only place where Kostas, who is Greek and Defne, who is Turkish can meet. The tavern is also home to a beautiful fig tree who remains throughout the book one of the key components and a narrator and witness to this love story. The tree witnesses their secret meetings, the war on the island and goes on to be a metaphor for our histories throughout the book.

The book moves from 1970s Cyprus where the teenagers meet and fall in love to the current day London where Kostas has a teenage daughter Ada who is struggling in school with her own thoughts. The book reveals much later how she was affected by her mother’s loss and how finding the secrets of her parents’ history makes her more connected to herself and her roots. Removed from her ancestors, she finds herself looking for answers not just about her mother but also the land she was from. Defne had made Kostas promise not to tell her about the many traumas they had survived.

After Defne’s loss, both Ada and Kostas drift apart until Meryem, Defne’s sister visits. She helps untangle the roots for Ada and brings her closer to her island and the stories therein. We see the ways in which Defne’s melancholy is dealt with in the book. Like in this quote: “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.”

Through this process of learning more about her mother, about Cyprus, about the war, we see Ada not just unravel her own knots but build a bond closer to Kostas.

The backdrop of the book remains the war in Cyprus and the many who are missing or have disappeared. It addresses the heartbreak and ache of the islanders whose family members go missing. It speaks to the deep trauma of a war hit land and the many stories wrapped into them. Shafak writes: “Truth is a rhizome – an underground plant stem with lateral shoots. You need to dig deep to reach it and, once unearthed, you have to treat it with respect.”

The entire story is held together with metaphors of trees and what we can learn from them. Primarily the fig tree that Kostas brings along from Cyprus to London but vignettes of insight about human lives through the eyes of the tree. In one part we see, “I wish I could have told him that loneliness is a human invention. Trees are never lonely. Humans think they know with certainty where there being ends and someone else’s starts. With there roots tangled and caught up underground, linked to fungi and bacteria, trees harbour no such illusions. For us, everything is interconnected.”

But mostly, this wonderful book is a story about love, hope and stories. Shafak writes: “Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between.” So read the book for the stories hidden in it.

Discussion theme and questions:

– What were your overall thoughts on the book – the writer’s ideas and style of writing etc.
– What were particular themes that struck you and why do you think you were struck by them?