“When you are in trouble or at your lowest point, and have no one in whom to confide, a hawthorn would be the right choice. There is a reason why hawthorns are home to fairies and known to protect pots of treasure. For wisdom, try a beech; for intelligence, a pine; for bravery, a rowan; for generosity, a hazel; for joy, a juniper; and for when you need to learn to let go of what you cannot control, a birch with its white-silver bark, peeling and shedding layers like old skin. Then again, if it’s love you’re after, or love you have lost, come to the fig, always the fig.” Elif Shafak The Island of the Missing Trees

Oh my, what a truly magical and beautiful novel is Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, a novel about loss, love, trauma, identity, displacement, history and by no means least, nature. In part, narrated by a fig tree, it is a love story and a war story but so, so much more. It is about exile and trauma and how the trauma of one generation can be passed on to another. A consideration of human stupidity and hypocrisy but also of the empathy and love that can also exist in the world. It is about the eternal beauty and interconnectedness of the world, the human world and the natural world. It is simply, a magnificent love song of a novel.

From the blurb:

In 1974, two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided Cyprus, meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, who is Greek, and Define, who is Turkish, can meet in secret, hidden beneath the leaves of a fig tree growing through the roof of the tavern. This tree will witness their hushed, happy meetings, and will be there when the war breaks out and the teenagers vanish.

Decades later in north London, sixteen-year-old Ada has never visited the island where her parents were born. She seeks to untangle years of her family’s silence, but the only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a fig tree growing in the back garden of their home…

While it is not a perfect novel, sometimes the device of the fig tree’s narrative can stretch credulity and seem a little clumsy, but it is undeniably beautiful and compelling. Shafak juxtaposes incredible violence and ugliness with such beauty and tenderness. Even the image of murdered men drips with majesty in the hands of Shafak: Some day the water will rust away the metal and the chains will snap, and the concrete’s rigid heart will soften as even the most rigid hearts tend to do with the passing of the years. Only then will the two corpses, finally free, swim towards the chink of sky overhead, shimmering in the refracted sunlight; they will ascend towards that blissful blue, at first slowly, then fast and frantic, like pearl divers gasping for air. (p5)

The novel is a fable for our times. Times of conflict and displacement, times of disconnection. If there is any overriding message in this work it is that the possibility for connection is always there, we just have to have the humility and empathy to make it. The ability to recognise the connections and to hear the voices of others: “I wish I could have told him that loneliness is a human invention. Trees are never lonely. Humans think they know with certainty where they’re being ends and someone else’s starts. With their roots tangled and caught up underground, linked to fungi and bacteria, trees harbour no such illusions. For us, everything is interconnected.”

The ability to be heard is significant in the novel. Early on Ada stands up in her class and for no apparent reason begins to scream. In an age of perpetual digital connection, it is no surprise that someone videos and uploads the incident. Amongst the usual bullying and negativity a hashtag emerges, that suggests something powerful and empowering in Ada’s act, #doyouhearmenow. The novel suggests it is not just a stricken teen we should be hearing but the earth itself is screaming. The hashtag is mentioned as Ada and her Aunt Meryem are cooped up inside as a winter storm rages, for Meryem the storm is; “Signs of the Apocalypse”, but to Ada: “It’s climate change, said Ada, without lifting her gaze from her phone. ‘Not a revengeful God. We are doing this to ourselves. We are going to see more floods and hurricanes if we don’t act now. No one is going to save us. Soon it’ll be too late for coral reefs, monarch butterflies.” (p122) As much as this is a novel about history and the human experience of exile and suffering, it is a novel about the natural world and how important our connections are to it. Trees, nature, more generally is speaking for those who listen.

Primarily a novel about Cyprus, its tragic past and the human tragedies that engenders, Shafak does use her narrative to speak to other issues which may not seem directly connected at first. The island experiences a heat wave that leads to a mass mortality event amongst the island’s bats and Kostas a sensitive teen with a deep connection to the natural world around him, is devastated by that tragedy as much as he is devastated by the conflict amongst his neighbours and fellow islanders. The fig too, is broken by that small tragedy: “We fig trees hold bats in high regard… …I consider them my friends. It broke me seeing them dropping to their deaths like fallen leaves.” (p.150) It is hardly surprising that Kostas becomes an ecologist.

It is easy to focus on human tragedy in war and forget the wider complexities but Shafak and the fig tree do not allow that: “…I am going to include in it the creatures in my ecosystem – the birds, the bats, the butterflies, the honeybees, the ants, the mosquitoes and the mice – because there is one thing I have learned: Wherever there is war and a painful partition, there will be no winners, human or otherwise.” (p190). Animals become a means of conveying information within the story, and the descriptions of the natural world are some of the richest and most beautiful writing in the book, but for some readers, this may still seem a clumsy literary device.

A migrating queen ant delivers one crucial piece of information to the tree. It is the beautiful natural detail that makes the writing so rich and evocative: “Here she mated and chewed off her wings as though discarding a wedding dress, so that she could never fly again. She turned herself into a fully fledged egg-laying machine”. (p.289) Or there is this memorable and evocative description of the soil beneath our feet: “Life below the surface is neither simple nor monotonous. The subterranean, contrary to what most people think, is bustling with activity. As you tunnel deep down, you might be surprised to see the soil take on unexpected shades. Rusty red, soft peach, warm mustard, lime green, rich turquoise … Humans teach their children to paint the earth in one colour alone. They imagine the sky in blue, the grass in green, the sun in yellow and earth entirely in brown. If they only knew they have rainbows under their feet.” (p80)

I confess it was the promise of nature writing that drew me to the novel and that promise was wonderfully fulfilled but the novel is much more than that. It is a deeply thoughtful tale of division and love but it also filled a considerable gap in my knowledge of Cyprus and its divisive history. I will confess my ignorance and admit I had only the vaguest awareness of Cypriot history. I knew it was an island between Greece and Turkey and that the island was the subject of a dispute over territory but beyond that, I knew nothing. I certainly feel I have some knowledge and understanding now. One novel is no substitute for a deep, detailed dive into history, but I have some sense of that history and the pain attached to it. The Island of the Missing trees is a wonderful, evocative read. I absolutely loved it and can highly recommend. In fact, curl up with a cardamon coffee and some baklava and revel in this evocative tale of a beautiful, if unhappy island. This is my first novel by Elif Shafak, it will not be my last.

This one very definitely counts as a read for the Gaia/nature challenge filled with a rich description of the natural world, and a kind of pagan reverence for nature, especially the trees.

6 thoughts on “Elif Shafak and the wisdom of trees

  1. Our online travel-themed book club read and loved this book a few months ago. Please may I share a link to this blog in our Facebook group?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 10 minutes and 38 seconds is the next one I am going to track down. I did really enjoy Island of missing trees although I can see why it may not appeal to every reader.


      1. I didn’t love 10 minutes as much, although I did enjoy the sense of Istanbul she captured in its pages. I remember liking her The Forty Rules of Love, especially the story within the story.


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