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“The Island of Missing Trees” by Elif Shafak: Intergenerational trauma and healing through writing

Elif Shafak’s novel The Island of Missing Trees sitting on a bed of grass.

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This is my first Elif Shafak novel and I just fell in love with The Island of Missing Trees. Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British author who writes in both Turkish and English. Her works are often centred on complex political issues and this has caused her a lot of grief in the past where she was put on trial for insulting Turkey with her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. Her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees is no different when it comes to controversy and complex subject matter as Shafak takes on the civil war in Cyprus. Before going deeper with Shafak’s novel, I do want to give you a brief overview of the conflict in Cyprus.

Cyprus was under British and Ottoman (Turkish) control from as early as the late 1800s. It was annexed in 1914 and the complexities of Turkish and Greek relations extended for generations from then on with military occupations, coups, and all-out conflict in the 1970s. Cyprus is a divided island – with a Turkish side and a Greek side – Muslim and Christian, Turkish and Greek, pistachios or walnuts for baklava…

Shafak’s novel has a simple premise, love. And it might seem like a cliche, but it just works for this beautiful story. Defne, a Turkish woman, and Kostas, a Greek man, fall in love at the peak of the conflict in Cyrpus in 1974. Their love is helped along by a beautiful mixed Turkish and Greek couple Yusuf and Yiorgos and a little tavern called “The Happy Fig”.

The love between Defne and Kostas is complicated and while they eventually end up together in England with their beautiful daughter Ada, the two actually spend years apart. When Kostas finally comes back to Cyprus and meets Defne again, a part of him is healed. The same is not for Defne though.

Ada gets up in her classroom and screams. The scream gets recorded and goes viral. Some people hate it and some people start a movement, letting out their own cries of frustration. Ada isn’t sure why she screams – she has some sort of understanding that something is missing in her life, but she doesn’t truly know how to articulate that until her mother’s sister, Meryem comes to visit. It is only then that Ada realises there is so much of her heritage, both Turkish and Greek, but also as a Cyprian, an islander that has been hidden from her.

Shafak does an amazing job at addressing the intergenerational trauma of Cyprians who lost family and loved ones in the island’s many conflicts through the love story of Defne and Kostas and the reconnection of family between Kostas, Ada, and Meryem. The star of Shafak’s novel though is a beautiful little fig tree that almost gets destroyed in Cyprus and then finds a new start in the cold of England. Shafak’s writing of the tree and her research on the botany of fig trees is amazing.

I will definitely be picking up more of Shafak’s novel after reading “The Island of Missing Trees”. As always share the reading love.