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Book club: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

by
05 April 2023

Natalie K. Watson explores Elif Shafak’s nostalgic novel The Island of Missing Trees

EVERY year, tens of thousands flock to the beaches of Ayia Napa or Paphos in search of sea and sunshine — perhaps even a glance at some of the sites: Aphrodite’s Rock, or the pillar where St Paul was allegedly flogged. Fewer venture to Northern Cyprus, perhaps to Famagusta, “a seaport in Cyprus”, as Shakespeare has it; or to Kyrenia, with its splendid harbour and the enchanting Bellapais Abbey in the mountains above. For many, it is a land of legends.

For others, it is the memory of military service, being stationed in the Mediterranean sun; remnants of a more recent colonial past which remain visible today.

But those who travel around Cyprus with their eyes open cannot overlook that Cyprus, fought over and beloved by many, was the site of one of the most devastating and bloody conflicts of the 20th century. There are, of course, visible reminders: Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world, reminiscent perhaps, though not quite, of Berlin before the fall of the Wall; memorials remembering atrocities on both sides, which point to the inevitable conclusion that what happened can be remembered in more than one way.

But remembered it is, and not just on the island itself and among the people who live there now, but also among the many Cypriots who left their homes and settled elsewhere, in the hope of starting again.

Alongside remembering and starting again often sit nostalgia and trauma, on the one hand, the romanticisation of the time “before” — when people lived peacefully as neighbours, celebrated, mourned, and ate together — and, on the other, the deep and disturbing presence of experiences and losses that are too painful to name, and yet are always present and live on in future generations.

And it is there that The Island of Missing Trees begins, with Ada, a teenager in London who lives with her father, a biologist, and whose mother has recently died. In their garden, there is a fig tree. Ada, although named after the island, has never actually been to the home of her parents. And then that scream she gives, in the middle of the last history class before Christmas, while being instructed about a school project to interview a relative of a previous generation.

The slow motion in which Elif Shafak describes this moment that opens the plot shows her remarkable power of observation, which is in itself part of the narrative: “A sound reverberated inside her head, a heavy, steady rhythm — crack-crack-crack — and all she could think of in that instant was that someone outside this classroom, far beyond her reach, someone’s bones were breaking.”

© Ferhat Elik 2021The author Elif Shafak, an award-winning British-Turkish novelist

What unfolds is the story of Ada’s parents, Kostas and Defne, childhood sweethearts, he the son of a Greek widow who grows carob trees, and she the daughter of a Turkish family. The refuge for their budding romance is the Happy Fig, a tavern run by Yussuf and Yiorgios, partners not just in business. They offer the best of local food and wine to all who come, and are at an even greater risk than the young couple, and so the inevitable happens, and a bomb explodes and destroys the tavern.

While the differences between the communities to which Yussuf and Yiorgios, as well as Kostas and Defne, belong have always been there, and there are lines that should not be crossed, violence and conflict escalate. Yussuf and Yiorgios disappear without trace, and Kostas is sent to London by his mother, who has already lost a husband and two sons. Kostas tries to stay in touch with Defne, but receives little more than a request not to contact her again.

The years pass, until Kostas eventually returns to Cyprus in the early 2000s, and finds Defne now working for an international organisation that tracks down the hidden traces of the bloody conflict of the 1970s. Mass graves are often discovered through tip-offs from locals, and bones are unearthed and returned so that their families, on both sides, may be able to give their loved ones a dignified burial.

The former lovers reconnect, and Kostas persuades Defne to join him in London, to start again, to forget what has been. With them, they take a cutting of the old fig tree, which Kostas carefully tends and eventually plants in the garden of their north London home. Alongside the main narrative, the tree speaks, reflects, and offers wisdom about the realities of which humankind cannot bear too much.

Defne insists that their child should not be burdened with the memory of what they have left behind, but it is under the burden of that memory that her own life collapses, first in overwork and excessive drinking, and ultimately in her death.

Shafak has chosen Cyprus rather than, perhaps, the Armenian genocide that continues to haunt her native Turkey. Trauma and intergenerational transfer of memories are of much wider relevance for migrant communities, and for those among whom they seek to rebuild their lives. The Bible speaks of “the sins of the fathers” which will continue to haunt future generations; but perhaps we need to speak also of “the trauma of the mothers” which will be present in the lives of future generations, and which needs to be dealt with.

But what does “dealing with trauma” mean? Much German post-war literature speaks of the deafening silence of the parent generation who had lived through the war, and about the conflicts between the generations that resulted from that silence.

But there are also voices like that of the American Jewish writer Shalom Auslander, who speaks of the burdening of children with events and experiences that they may not yet be able to process and engage with. Between them, perhaps, is Ada’s scream, and the gradual unpacking of where she came from, where her life began before it began, where roots may be found, where uprooting may also be necessary, and where a new generation may encounter its own trauma.

 

Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, writer, and editor, living in Peterborough.


The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak is published by Penguin at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-241-98872-5.


Listen to Natalie K. Watson in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here

 

THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES – SOME QUESTIONS


“How strange that in families scarred by wars, forced displacement and acts of brutality, it was the youngest who seemed to have the oldest memory” (p. 315). Can you think of situations where a traumatic experience in the past comes to the fore in the present?


Ada’s history teacher asks her students not to patronise or judge the older person they are interviewing. Is that actually possible?


What do you think about the chapters narrated by the Fig Tree? What is the tree communicating?


Do men and women respond to trauma differently? What do the responses of Defne and Kostas say about their characters?


There are two different consultations with an exorcist, at different times, but both instigated by Meryem, Defne’s sister and Ada’s aunt. How do you see Meryem’s part in Defne’s life and in Ada’s?


Cyprus is famous for its halloumi (helim) cheese, which is popular in the UK, too. What is the significance of food in The Island of Missing Trees?

 

IN OUR next Book Club page, on 5 May, we will print extra information about our next book, Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover. It is published by Birlinn at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-84697-608-7.


THE BOOK

Of Stone and Sky is a novel set in the hills and straths of the Scottish Highlands. At the heart of this multi-generational saga is the mystery of the disappearance of the Highland shepherd Colvin Munro. One of the main narrators of this modern-day redemptive tale is Mo, the missing shepherd’s foster-sister. Mo is a Church of Scotland minister, and her voice becomes the book’s moral compass. In the book, the author covers a range of themes relevant to the use of the Highlands, including land ownership, ecology, and the challenges facing sheep-farming.


THE AUTHOR

Merryn Glover is a novelist and radio dramatist. Her first significant work was a stage play, The Long Way Home, and since then she has written radio plays for Radio 4 and Radio Scotland. She was born in Kathmandu and brought up in Nepal, India, and Pakistan, where her Anglican Australian parents worked as Wycliffe Bible Translators. The author now lives in the Upper Spey Valley, in the Highlands, which provides the setting for Of Stone and Sky, her second novel.


BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

JUNE: My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor

JULY: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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