Imagine a fig tree speaking, the unexpected perspective its voice would lend to a war-torn island’s history, full of forbidden teenage love, reunions and cultural divides. Such is Elif Shafak’s intergenerational novel of love, loss and family, The Island of Missing Trees.
The novel moves between 1974 Cyprus—as cities collapse amid war, as neighbors are made enemies depending on whether they are Greek or Turkish, Christian or Muslim—and London in the 2010s. Ada Kazantzakis, teenage daughter of Kostas and his wife, Defne, is fascinated and bothered by the fig tree that her botanist father spends so much time and energy tending. While Ada wonders at her father’s obsession, the tree tells her own story, offering the keys to discover how this family came to England, far from the island that Ada only knows in stories, the place that Kostas still calls home.
The novel shifts easily in time and space, but even more interesting is the way that it functions as a story of environment and species. The fig tree notices birds and bats, other trees and ants; she sees and comments upon politics, war, love and the broad impact of human choices. She sees into the hearts of humans, animals and the earth, and tries to convey the beauty and challenges of doing so.
Shafak’s novel, particularly in the meditative moments when the fig tree speaks, asks readers to see beyond themselves, to consider cultures and conflicts that are not their own, to see how each action ripples.