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Book Review: An ode to homelands in “The Island of Missing Trees”

I’ve read a variety of exciting POVs–from omnipresent gods to watchful animals, but never a fig tree. Award-winning Elif Shafak’s latest novel “The Island of Missing Trees” is partially told through the “eyes” of a bewitched fig tree.

The story follows our Romeo and Juliet, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, who fall in love at a tavern during the Cyprus conflict that continues to divide the island. As Kostas and Defne fall more in love, a fig tree planted in the tavern observes their clandestine meetings, the civil war breaking out, and the disappearance of the teenage lovers. Kostas returns to the island years later as a well-known botanist while searching for his lost love and answers to questions he’s pondered for decades.

Sixteen years later, a fig tree grows in the London backyard of Kostas and his daughter Ada. The fig tree is her only connection to the island and her family’s troubled history. An unexpected visitor sends Ada on an emotional journey to uncover her family’s secrets and identity.

Every chapter is a glimpse into the family’s history and aftermath of that fateful year in Cyprus. Ada’s hidden grief for her mother and unknown identity is told through the lens of school drama and a project wherein she must interview an older family member. Her inner conflict and project fill in the gaps of her identity as the past is revealed. Her father, Kostas, and past perspectives encapsulate the horrors, and fathomless grief uprooted people experience with a softness not often found in the genre.

From the 1970s and early 2000s in Cyprus to the 2010s in London, the narrative jumps between periods and places. It also jumps between Ada, Kostas, and the elusive fig tree perspectives–the latter having the most insightful and heart-wrenching of chapters.

Shafak has proven her stellar writing style, but “The Island of Missing Trees” is her most imaginative work. Lyrical and wondrously inventive, the story is steeped in generational trauma and pain. It is written with loving optimism, turning into a story of healing, hope, and protecting our environment and identity. Shafak’s storytelling can only be described as a transcendent masterpiece–equivalent to a work of fine art in every sense of the phrase. I often highlight beautifully written prose in my books, and “The Island of Missing Trees” is no exception.

Shafak illustrates, “A map is a two-dimensional representation with arbitrary symbols and incised lines that decide who is to be our enemy and who is to be our friend, who deserves our love and how deserves our hatred and who, our sheer indifference. Cartography is another name for stories told by winners. For stories told by those who have lost, there isn’t one."

Before reading, I wasn’t familiar with the Cyprus conflict, so following Kostas and Defne’s love story was also an evocative history lesson. Her retelling of the conflict is handled with delicate kindness and the realistic horrors of war. There are mentions of war crimes and deeply traumatic situations; nevertheless, “The Island of Missing Trees” doesn’t glamorize or leave out the truths and realities of the Cyprus conflict.

Moving, deeply human, and transcendent, “The Island of Missing Trees,” at its core, is a story of family and the love for those we’ve lost–human, plant, or a home. As the dedication says, “to immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, and to the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories,” Shafak maps the world through the roots of family trees and the pain–and hope–that stays long after.

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