The Island of Missing Trees

The Island of Missing Trees


It is 1974 on the island of Cyprus. Two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land, meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, who is Greek and Christian, and Defne, who is Turkish and Muslim, can meet, in secret, hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. This is where one can find the best food in town, the best music, the best wine. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its immoderate sorrows.

In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. This tree will witness their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and the tree will be there when the war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to rubble, when the teenagers vanish and break apart.

Decades later in north London, sixteen-year-old Ada Kazantzakis has never visited the island where her parents were born. Desperate for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. The only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a Ficus Carica growing in the back garden of their home.

In The Island of Missing Trees, prizewinning author Elif Shafak brings us a rich, magical tale of belonging and identity, love and trauma, memory and amnesia, human-induced destruction of nature, and, finally, renewal.

Our Review

The Island of the Missing Trees by Elif Shafak has cemented Shafak’s position as one of my favourite authors.

I have visited Cyprus a couple of times and was aware of the bare bones of the history of Nicosia, but The Island of the Missing Trees really brings it to life. It made me consider too that when I had only considered it before it was only as a tourist destination, somewhere unique. I had never considered the continued impact of the division on the lives of those who live there.

“The capital was split by a partition which sliced right through it like a slash to the heart. Along the demarcation line – the frontier – were dilapidated houses riddled with bullet holes, empty courtyards scarred with grenade bursts, boarded stores gone to ruin, ornamented gates hanging at angles from broken hinges, luxury cars from another era rotting away under layers of dust…Roads were blocked by coils of barbed wire, piles of sandbags, barrels full of concrete, anti-tank ditches and watchtowers. Streets ended abruptly, like unfinished thoughts, unresolved feelings.”

The Island of the Missing Trees contains so much within its pages. It is the story of Ada Kazantzaki, a 16-year-old girl who is mourning the loss of her mother and questioning her lack of knowledge about her family history. She knows that her parents were from different sides of the border in Nicosia and that their relationship has led to a family rift but that is the extent of her knowledge, and she is angry about it.

Her father, for his part, has retreated into his grief by talking to a fig tree in his garden. The fig tree was smuggled from Nicosia with him when he came to England and incidentally the tree is in love with him.

Initially I struggled with the chapters written from the perspective of the fig tree because it felt like it should be at odds with the feel of the book but actually it worked really well. I don’t think The Island of the Missing Trees would pack so much of a punch without it.

When Ada’s aunt comes to stay we learn about her parent’s courtship in a tavern called The Happy Fig, about two men murdered and left to rot at the bottom of a well, and about the impact of the civil war upon her parents romance and their familial relationships.

One of the elements of this novel that really made it come alive for me was the extensive information on the customs of the people of the island of Cyprus. It is obvious that the author has thoroughly researched all of the topics discussed within the book but this one in particular has some incredible detail to it, in particular when it came to customs around pregnant women.

“During those nine months both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot women will not hand a knife to another person or leave a pair of scissors open on a table, they will not glance at hairy animals or those deemed ugly, or yawn open-mouthed lest a spirit sneaks in. When their babies are born, they will abstain from trimming their fingernails or cutting their hair for months. And when after forty days they show their babies to friends and relatives, the same women will secretly pinch them to make them cry – a precaution against the evil eye.”

For me, one of the things I loved about this book was that it reminded me of some of Margaret Atwood’s work in terms of it being a call for us to wake up to the havoc we reek on nature.

“Humans find mice and rats nasty, but hamsters and gerbils sweet. Doves signify world peace, whereas pigeons are nothing more than carriers of urban filth. They proclaim piglets charming, wild boars tolerable. Nutcrackers they admire, even as they avoid their noisy cousins, the crows. Dogs evoke in them a sense of fuzzy warmth, while wolves conjure up tales of horror. Butterflies they look on with favour, moths not at all. They have a soft spot for ladybirds, and yet if they were a soldier beetle, they would crush it on sight. Honeybees are favoured in stark contrast to wasps. Although horseshoe crabs are considered delightful, it’s a different story when it comes to their distant relatives, spiders…I have tried to find a logic in all this, but came to the conclusion that there is none.”

The Island of the Missing Trees is a superbly crafted reminder to us all that conflict never pays.

“Whenever there is war and a painful partition, there will be no winners, human or otherwise.”


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Our Rating

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