“A tree is a memory keeper. Tangled beneath our roots, hidden inside our trunks, are the sinews of history, the ruins of wars nobody came to win, the bones of the missing.
The water sucked up through our boughs is the blood of the earth, the tears of the victims, and the ink of truths yet to be acknowledged. Humans, especially the victors who hold the pen that writes the annals of history, have a penchant for erasing as much as documenting. It remains to us plants to collect the untold, the unwanted. Like a cat that curls up on its favorite cushion, a tree wraps itself around the remnants of the past.”
In “The Island of Missing Trees”, the latest novel from the talented Elif Shafak, the reader gets that rare moment of anthropomorphism in adult literature. This time, it is the voice of the trees. A century-old fig tree serves as a recurring, first-person narrator and central figure in this story of civil war, trauma, and loss.
In an increasingly embattled Cyprus of the mid 1970s, Greek Cypriot Kostas and Turkish Cypriot Defne fall in love as teenagers, their forbidden love across cultural divides a familiar trope. However, at least for me, there was nothing cliched in this excavation of Cyprus, its troubled history, and the deep wounds felt not only by generations of its human inhabitants, but by all of the island’s flora and fauna. Shafak’s story proceeds along archaeological lines, carefully peeling back layer by layer with a blend of reverence, respect, and anticipation.
“If families resemble trees, as they say, arborescent structures with entangled roots and individual branches jutting out at awkward angles, family traumas are like thick, translucent resin dripping from a cut in the bark. They trickle down generations.”
As the reader uncovers the stories of Kostas and Defne’s love, of the inherited traumas of their British-born daughter, and of the devastation wrought upon Cyprus from the perspective of human and arboreal inhabitants, the deep themes of human tribalism and human exceptionalism take root. The raconteur fig tell us,
“[L]oneliness is a human invention. Trees are never lonely. Humans think they know with certainty where their being ends and someone else’s starts. With their roots tangled and caught up underground, linked to fungi and bacteria, trees harbor no such illusions. For us, everything is interconnected.”
And even the story’s human protagonists, wracked with loneliness though they are, are deeply, irrevocably interconnected.
Shafak’s newest novel is abundant with so many beautifully wrought passages, though sometimes the connections and transitions feel slightly jagged, disjointed, in need of polish. Despite the underlying thesis of interconnectedness, the narrative itself occasionally falls short in its fluidity. Though I found myself taking stutter steps between sections, the overall effect was a success, and perhaps the transitions were intentionally abrupt to juxtapose the metaphor of tangled, interwoven roots. Regardless, Shafak has gifted us with a new perspective and a thought-provoking look at the timeless motifs of geopolitics, identity, trauma, and the natural world.
Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing an Advance Reading Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Island of Missing Trees” is out in the United States on November 2, 2021.