The Island of Missing Trees

Elif Shafak

The Island of Missing Trees
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The Island of Missing Trees

Elif Shafak

Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. The taverna is the only place that Kostas and Defne can meet in secret, hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic and chilli peppers, creeping honeysuckle, and in the centre, growing through a cavity in the roof, a fig tree. The fig tree witnesses their hushed, happy meetings; their silent, surreptitious departures. The fig tree is there, too, when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, when the teenagers vanish.

Decades later, Kostas returns - a botanist, looking for native species - looking, really, for Defne. The two lovers return to the taverna to take a clipping from the fig tree and smuggle it into their suitcase, bound for London. Years later, the fig tree in the garden is their daughter Ada’s only knowledge of a home she has never visited, as she seeks to untangle years of secrets and silence, and find her place in the world.

The Island of Missing Trees i
s a rich, magical tale of belonging and identity, memory and trauma, nature and renewal, from the Booker-shortlisted author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.


Ada is 16 years old and struggling to fit in. She’s lost her mother, Defne, and she can’t connect with her father, Kostas. He’s physically present but emotionally distant. One day at her school in North London, Ada snaps, screaming uncontrollably. In response, Ada’s father invites her maternal aunt, Meryem, to visit from Cyprus. To Ada, Meryem holds the key to understanding her parents’ secret past and the legacy of trauma that Defne and Kostas brought with them from Cyprus to London.

Flashback to 1974: two teenagers are falling in love. Kostas is Greek and Christian; Defne is Turkish and Muslim. If the wrong people – including their families – find out, their very lives could be in danger. They find refuge at a local tavern, underneath the shade of a fig tree that grows through a hole in the roof of the building. The safety they feel, however, is illusory. War breaks out and the island is divided in two.

The Island of Missing Trees is a story about trauma, how it lives in bodies and is passed down through generations. The novel is written in Elif Shafak’s signature lyrical style – she writes about atrocities in something closer to poetry than prose. Shafak is prone at times to sentimentality – I couldn’t quite connect with the sentient fig tree – but it also feels cynical to criticise her methods of working through such a sensitive topic. This is a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful work about what divides us and what brings us together.

Tristen Brudy is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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