The Island of Missing Trees is a MUST READ!
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
Genre: General Fiction
Award: Women's Prize nominee short list
Published August 2021, 368 pages
This book. Wow. It is so beautifully written, lyrical but not stuffy or self-indulgent. Full of gorgeous, not overly flowery descriptions of the natural world as well as difficult emotions. It's a master class in setting a tone, grabbing a reader by the heart, and encouraging them into the book. WARNING - this is a bit longer than usual .... because I want to entice you to read this book!
from page 1 "A map is a two-dimensional representation with arbitrary symbols and incised lines that decide who is to be our enemy and who is to be our friend, who deserves our love and who deserves our hatred and who, our sheer indifference. Cartography is another name for stories told by winners. For stories told by those who have lost, there isn't one."
LET ME SET THE STAGE
I actually wasn't exactly sure where Cyprus is - if pressed, I would have guessed it was closer to Greece, but the map shows it is clearly closer to Turkey and Syria. I thought this map might help set the stage for you.
Set primarily on the island of Cyprus (but partly in London), and over a few timelines, it’s sort of a love story about teenagers who are in love ala Romeo & Juliet – one Greek, one Turkish, which is a giant no-no on Cyprus. War happens, they’re separated, they reconnect years later. That’s the bones of it.
The meat and heart of it is that I learned about the history of Cyprus in an entertaining (definitely non-textbook) way, the culture, the war, the divisions in the country, etc. War due to difference in religious beliefs (Christian vs Muslim). I learned so much about the natural world and the connections between animals and plants and their reliance upon each other. I was reminded of the different ways people deal with love and grief.
There are two main timelines - Kostas and Defne as teenagers in love on Cyprus in the 1970s, then the 2010s with Kostas and Ada, his 16 year old daughter, both trying to deal with Defne's death. Also in the 2010s, another major character is introduced, Defne's sister, Meryem. Her visit introduced a little levity because, man, did that woman ever have a saying or proverb for EVERYthing! Here's a couple:
"When God wants to please a poor soul, He lets him lose his donkey and helps him find it again."
"Wisdom consists of ten parts: nine parts of silence, one part of words."
Though I would definitely NOT call this a book about war, the civil war and its devastation is a background constant throughout the story and the book illustrates how effects from a war can impact generations. This is not a particularly uplifting book; grief is pervasive but doesn't dominate all the timelines.
"There are moments in life when everyone has to become a warrior of some kind. If you are a poet, you fight with your words; if you are an artist, you fight with your paintings ... But you can't say, "Sorry, I'm a poet, I'll pass." You don't say that when there's so much suffering, inequality, injustice."
There’s also a fig tree that plays a prominent role AND this fig tree has occasional chapters where she ‘tells’ of the events from her ancient perspective; her reflections of the human race, of society, of animals and trees and how they support and communicate with each other. The voice of the fig tree is ……. Amazing. I loved the connectivity of the natural world shown over and over in a variety of ways and the way Shafak was able to weave all the elements together with the human stories.
I'm not going to share the best fig tree quote here because .... well, it's long, it made me laugh out loud, and I don't want to spoil the surprise for you - but it's on page 31!
"Bats are not deemed to be cute. In 1974, when they died in their thousands, I didn't see many people shedding a tear for them. Humans are strange that way, full of contradictions. It's as if they need to hate and exclude as much as they need to love and embrace. Their hearts close tightly, then open at full stretch, only to clench again, like an undecided fist."
I was struck multiple times by the level of research necessary to write this book so effectively, but even more noteworthy is the way in which that research shows up. Nothing got a superficial treatment. There's emotional depth as well as humor, facts as well as feelings. I wish I had the words to describe the feeling I’m left with – this book touched me, made me smile, made me frustrated (at war), warm and fuzzy – all the feels. Maybe we'll all take the time to look at trees and the natural world a bit more attentively after reading The Island of Missing Trees.