The Island of Missing Trees feels like a strange title until you realise how hard Elif Shafak makes trees work in her latest novel, an epic tale about love, grief and memory set in Cyprus and London between 1974 and the ‘late 2010s’.
One tree, a fig or ficus carica, narrates half the story, tipping Shafak’s 12th novel into myth territory. The others — the missing trees — are stand-ins for those killed in the 1974 Cypriot civil war, metaphors labouring as hard as plants for the British-Turkish author who fled Turkey after being prosecuted for ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul.
The action opens in December, in a school in north London, where 16-year-old Ada (whose Turkish-Cypriot mother, Defne, died the previous January) is in a history lesson. Her teacher is gearing up to study migration and generational change. Everyone needs to interview an elderly relative, but Ada knows that her father, Kostas, a Greek-Cypriotbotanist, won’t talk about her family’s past. She finds herself screaming, and can’t stop: ‘Her voice was a flying carpet that lifted her up and carried her against her will.’
At home, her father is digging a trench to bury the fig tree — which turns out to be a cutting from a tree that watched over his emerging affair with Defne — to save it from what is poised to be a harsh British winter. People are stockpiling, ‘as if getting ready for a siege’: this is weather as war, the enemy as climate change — one of what verges on a checklist of themes as Shafak spins between Ada’s teenage angst and her parents’ complicated history.
From that guttural scream, a clip of which goes viral, to the question marks hanging over Defne’s mental health, Shafak packs in the issues at a dizzying pace. Immigration, colonialism, homophobia and ethnic division are all woven together. A lesser storyteller would struggle with so many different threads, but Shafak, who writes in English, is meticulous at plotting. Nothing happens without a reason, down to Ada doodling a butterfly in her teacher’s prescient history lesson. Butterflies feature heavily, alongside a host of other insects and animals, to underline how connected we are as species.
What doesn’t quite work is Shafak’s attempt to set up the story as a mystery about Ada’s origins and the relatives missing at Defne’s funeral: the clues are already in the prologue, where she spells out the price of living on a divided island. What lifts the novel are snippets such as the image of the occasional birthday balloon that escapes a child’s grip to drift into enemy territory across the border, or the thought of a new generation like Ada’s asking the right questions to heal rifts. Not forgetting that fig tree, reborn with fresh roots in a new country.
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