Book Review – The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak is a beautiful and captivating novel about love and loss, identity and displacement, devastation and renewal. At once heartbreaking and hopeful, the story spans several points in time across almost half a century, taking us from war-torn Cyprus of the 1970’s to London of the late 2010s.

It’s in the quiet back room of a bustling tavern, under the watchful eye of a fig tree, that young love blossoms between Kostas and Defne; a forbidden love that must remain shrouded in secrecy, weighed down by the terror of what would happen if their relationship is discovered, as they hail from opposite sides of a country divided by conflict and simmering with a growing tension. The novel goes on to explore the consequences of this love, and how the effects of generational trauma have shaped their daughter Ada’s life.

Shafak beautifully conjures her main characters: Kostas, the gentle soul who feels more of an affinity for nature than people; Defne, a vibrant spirit with a rebellious streak and a real passion for life; and their daughter Ada, years later in London, who ‘so many times in the past…had suspected that she carried within a sadness that was not quite her own’ and is left grappling with an inner rage, a loneliness, and a feeling that she doesn’t belong anywhere. 

The power of the natural world is an essential theme of this novel, explored with just a dash of magic realism, and Shafak draws many comparisons between people and trees, considering how, in many respects, they have surpassed us; having developed ways to retain connectivity with the world around them, to surmount the disconnectedness that humans so often fall prey to. I think it’s safe to say I will never view trees in the same way after reading this book. The nobility and symbolism of trees, as memory keepers – as a binding element between people, the lands they came from, and the secrets they held there – is just beautiful.

Shafak writes in the most lyrical, sensory and evocative prose, and this novel stands out in recent reads as having not only such a stunning opening but also closing passage. The opening passage perfectly captures the idyllic, dreamlike beauty of the island of Cyprus before shattering the illusion with descriptions of the brutal disruption caused by the military presence on the island due to political and social conflict; a juxtaposition which recurs throughout the novel. Shafak has a particular knack for vividly conjuring the climate and weather of her places, and uses this to great effect as she builds momentum and heightens tension as the novel progresses; from the beauty, clear blue skies and feral heat of a tense Cyprus, to the freezing, battering and climactic storm in London.

The Island of Missing Trees is a sweeping novel that merges a love story, an ode to nature and lessons in history with an investigation into generational trauma and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of terror; illuminating both the facts and the emotion, the rage and the grief, the politics and the humanity. Shafak explores both personal trauma and suffering on an intimate scale, and collective trauma on a larger scale. While this is a story from Cyprus, it speaks to all the friendships and relationships that have suffered in countries divided by conflict. Shafak also touches on themes of superstition, the folklore built around nature, and migration, once again drawing comparisons between man and the natural world; observing that, ultimately, man-made divides are no barrier to nature. 

This is a beautiful, captivating novel, and I cannot wait to read more by Elif Shafak.

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The Island of Missing Trees was published by Viking in 2021.

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Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist. She has published 19 books, 12 of which are novels, including her latest The Island of Missing Trees, shortlisted for the Costa  Award, RSL Ondaatje Prize and Women’s Prize for Fiction. She is a bestselling author in many countries around the world and her work has been translated into 55 languages. Full bio available at her website.

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