With climate change at the forefront of the news these days, we’ve been seeing a lot of fiction integrating themes about nature and the environment. The Island of Missing Trees is one of those books. British-Turkish author Shafak brings together nature and humanity in a gentle, almost playful way – one of the narrators is a tree. This unique tree, a fig, had a special place for years in the center of a tavern in Nicosia, Cyprus, where it grew through a hole in the roof, and was then transplanted to England by a man and woman whose love first grew under its branches. Many of us probably don’t know much about Cyprus, but the picturesque Mediterranean island has been plagued by conflict for centuries. Once a British colony, it was settled by Greeks and Turks whose claims on the island led to armed conflict in 1974. Thousands perished or had to flee their homes, and in the aftermath, the island was divided into two, with a buffer zone in the middle.
This story is set against the backdrop of that conflict. Kostas and Defne are teenage lovers whose romance is forbidden because they come from opposing cultures: Kostas is Greek and Defne, Turkish. The Happy Fig, the tavern that is home to the fig tree, is their secret meeting place. Then the 1974 war happens and Kostas and Defne are separated, but eventually reunite, fleeing Cyprus for a new life in England and taking with them a precious cutting of the tree. After Defne passes away, their teenage daughter, Ava, must struggle to find herself, not just in her British present, but in her parents’ Cypriot past.
The Island of Missing Trees is a lush, lyrical book. Moving back and forth in time, it evokes compassion not just for the characters, who must cope with loss and grief, but for the natural world around them that is experiencing traumas of its own. A beautiful and moving read.