The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafaq is a novel about Cyprus and its recent history. Via the love affair and developing relationship between Kostas and Defne, the author examines the recent history of Cyprus during the post World War Two period. This era included several significant events, which are still playing out today.
Cyprus was a British colony. It was, and still is a British military base, which was why calls for independence in the 1950s and 1960s were covered so extensively in the British media. There were, in fact, two approaches that were dominant within Greek Cypriot society. One was union with Greece, the other independence. Neither, of course, was acceptable to the ethnically Turkish population of the island. Eventual unified independence from Britain lasted only until 1974 when Turkey invaded the north of the island, and divided it remains today.
All of this is relevant to the plot of Elif Shafaq’s novel, since the book describes a love affair between a Greek-speaking boy and a Turkish-speaking girl. They were, of course, both Cypriots, but language confers and confirms identity, and this liaison definitely crossed lines of taboo that were seen as uncrossable.
Add to that the fact that the place that allowed them to see each other was a bar run by a cross-community gay couple and thus here are assembled all the issues that a writer might want to address in the novel about Cyprus.
Also, at the center of this tale, ostensibly about Cypriot politics and inter-community relations, the character of a fig Tree watches over things. The tree knows about jet lag, can talk to mice, parrots, birds in general and many other animals, as well as other trees. It does not seem able to communicate directly with people, however. There is a resolution of plot, which explains why the fig tree becomes a central element book, but the device is not at all convincing, and is perhaps over sentimental.
We meet Kostas and Defne via their daughter, Ada, who lives in London, and has suffered an outburst at school. She is of an age that initially does not suggest that she could be the daughter of the two young lovers, but history twists the young couple’s lives, and all is revealed. Defne has recently died and her sister is living with Kostas and Ada because the daughter has seemed to suffer.
Defne drank. She suffered guilt and there emerged a need to uncover the past. Kostas, rather surprisingly, became a botanist and truly values his trees. After a period of separation, they meet again, by which time Defne is trying to unearth remains of her island’s trajedy. Eventually, the reason for Ada’s outburst at school is examined, but hardly resolved.
The Island of Missing Trees is a beautifully told story about a couple whose love could not originally bridge the gap between the communities. The character of the fig tree seems to emerge, however, when the author deemed she needed to inform the reader of something related to plot, and that alone makes the book somewhat less than satisfying.