The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak


Before I began to read this book set in Cyprus, I read the part of the Wikipedia entry for that country about the long struggles between the Greeks and Turks, especially the events of 1974 and found that background very helpful. Many elements make this a pleasing book. First, the familiar story of teenagers from opposite sides of a conflict in love; Romeo and Juliet leap to mind. Kostas, Greek, and Defne, Turkish, find support in a tavern called The Happy Fig, run by two men, one Greek and one Turkish. Then there’s the role of the fig tree that grew up and through the roof of that hospitable tavern, a wise and observant if a bit verbose tree. The recounting of several meals typical of Cyprus was welcome. Because Kostas, first, then later Defne move to England and raise their daughter there, immigration is a major element. Even the fig migrates, thanks to Kostas’s ability to take a cutting from the tree in The Happy Fig and nurture it.

Kostas and Defne had to keep their love a secret even before the country descended into war in 1974. By that time Kostas’s mother had managed to get him out of the country to stay with relatives in England. His aunt and uncle took him in and he was treated well. He was shocked by the weather:  “He was not prepared for this new sky overhead, which was dimly lit most of the time, only occasionally flickering into life like a buzzing bulb with low voltage.

Defne lived through those terrible times without him and was marked by the tragedies of her young life. They reconnected years later when Kostas returned to Cyprus for his work and were once again devoted to each other.

As I mentioned, the fig tree does go on. Here is one of its charming bits:

Throughout history I have seduced into my canopy droves of birds, bats, bees, butterflies, ants, mice, monkeys, dinosaurs…and also a certain confused couple, wandering around aimlessly in the Garden of Eden, a glazed look in their eyes. Make no mistake:  that was no apple. It is high time someone corrected this gross misunderstanding. Adam and Eve yielded to the allure of a fig, the fruit of temptation, desire and passion, not some crunchy apple. I don’t mean to belittle a fellow plant, but what chance does a bland apple have next to a luscious fig that still today, aeons after the original sin, tastes like lost paradise.

Near the end of the book the fig provided us with information key to the plot, a piece of knowledge the fig tree gained from his friend a bee who was trapped inside a house.

The fig tree also put into words the effects of migration. Here the fig taken to England says, “…it would take me seven years to be able to yield fruit again. Because that is what migrations and relocations do to us; when you leave your home for unknown shores, you don’t simply carry on as before; a part of you dies inside so that another part can start all over again.” And later:  “I miss Cyprus too. Maybe because of the frigid climate, I can’t help harking back to my days in the sun. I might have become a British tree, but some days it still takes me a moment to fathom where I am, on which island exactly.”

Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021, 353 pages. Available at the public library (I read the kindle version).

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