‘The Island of Missing Trees’ Book Review: Elif Shafak’s Novel Manages To Tug At The Right Chords

Love, trauma, memory, and loss, artistically weaved into fictional prose, is what we find in Elif Shafak’s latest novel, “The Island of Missing Trees.” Written by the Turkish British novelist, the book has been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2021. “The Island of The Missing Trees” deals with quite a several themes- from war, partition, and LGBTQ affairs, to love, family, displacement, depression, and even online bullying and the non-human; yet Shafak constructs her work in such a manner that it does not appear forced. 

The plot revolves around the lives of Defne, a Turkish Muslim, and Kostas, a Greek Christian, residing on the island of Cyprus. While the trope of inter-racial and interfaith lovers is something that has been used and often abused in literature beginning from the age-old story of Romeo and Juliet, what gives Shafak’s tale a stature of its own is her seamless style of narration and how it turns out to be much more than a love story. The novel deals with three distinct narrative timelines. The first talks about the young Kostas and Defne in 1974 Cyprus, the second deals with the present scenario of the late 2010s London, and the third and the fascinating narration is provided by a ‘fig tree.’ 

“The Island of Missing Trees” begins with the sixteen-year-old Ada, the daughter of Kostas and Defne. Ada, who is usually someone with a calm demeanor, has a sudden outburst in her class before her winter break. What was the reason behind the outburst? Was it an outcome of her mother’s death? Was it because she blamed her mother for her own demise? Or was it because of the gradual disconnection she felt from her father? Ada is not allowed to forget the incident at school, as the video of her screaming in the class had been shot by a classmate and had now gone viral. All through her winter break Ada keeps pondering on the reason behind her outburst, and there are a host of questions that torment her, questions which her father (Kostas) avoids answering, making her all the more distressed. Here, Shafak very subtly also explores the issue of online bullying and peer pressure faced by high schoolers. Some of the questions bothering Ada find answers with the arrival of Meryem, her maternal aunt. Although reluctant to connect with her aunt initially, who seems to be strikingly different from her, Ada finally identifies with her over the history of her family, a history which her parents had consciously kept away from her. 

In the narrative timeline of 1974 Cyprus, we see Elif Shafak draw from variant sources, showcasing her arboreal knowledge. The island of Cyprus becomes a site where politics, myth, botany, and zoology tend to intermingle with others. Using references from true events, the novelist presents a narrative that dramatizes history in a manner that the readers understand its inescapability. The horrors of partition and civil war and the trauma of displacement are well represented in the young love of Kostas and Defne, as they fall prey to historical conflict and Kostas is sent away to England. What happens within the span of twenty-five years until the lovers reconcile further elucidates the menace of political unrest and homophobia on the island. Kostas, who is also a victim of the divide in Cyprus, remaining away from the site of trauma for almost two decades, fails to share the grief of Defne, which is more deeply rooted and immediate. In Defne, Shafak exhibits the first-generation trauma victim, who, in spite of having a loving husband and daughter, retains the traumatic past and finally succumbs to it. 

The other interesting take is the treatment of the non-human by Shafak. While often in novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” trees have been of significance, Shafak’s use of the ‘fig tree’ as a narrator unfolding the stories of the islanders is praiseworthy. With a tinge of magic realism using birds, mosquitoes, bees, and rats as mouthpieces, the fig tree narrates the stories of the people and the love and tolerance that was once there. The novel starts with the point of view of the fig tree- ‘an immigrant tree,’ one which has been transported from its native island and replanted in the city of London. Through the 96 years old and once ‘Happy Fig,’ the novelist portrays the emotional turmoil of the immigrants- the absent home and the lost sense of belonging.

Shafak’s allegiance to culture and history is drastically evident in “The Island of Missing Trees,” and while it allows the readers to accustom themselves to the history of Cyprus, there seems to be a compromise on the character arcs in the novel. A psychological probe into the characters seems to be missing, and not much is known about Kostas, Defne, or Ada apart from their ethnic or occupational backgrounds. Although replete with symbolism and historical anecdotes, the novel fails to point out the primary cause of conflict between the Turkish and the Greek communities on the island. However, even with its flaws, “The Island of Missing Trees” manages to tug at the right chords and forces its readers to be emphatic. Published by Penguin Publishers, the 356 paged novels also includes a list of questions for discussion to further mull over the tale.   


“The Island of Missing Trees” is a 2021 Historical Romance novel written by Elif Shafak.

Farhana Tasnim
Farhana Tasnim
Farhana Tasnim is a Ph.D. scholar pursuing her degree in English literature. She has previously worked as a content writer. Farhana has always been an avid reader. Reading books across genres, analyzing them, and learning from them is how she likes to spend her time mostly.

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