Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Joint Review: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

It's been a while since I have done a joint review of a book with Bree from All the Books I Can Read, but recently we realised that we were both reading The Island of Missing Trees so it seemed like a good idea to talk about this book. Especially since it was a book that we both loved!!

First, here is the Goodreads blurb

A rich, magical new book on belonging and identity, love and trauma, nature and renewal, from the Booker shortlisted author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic, chili peppers and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness to their hushed, happy meetings and eventually, to their silent, surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns. He is a botanist looking for native species, but really, he’s searching for lost love.

Years later, a Ficus carica grows in the back garden of a house in London where Ada Kazantzakis lives. This tree is her only connection to an island she has never visited - her only connection to her family’s troubled history and her complex identity as she seeks to untangle years of secrets to find her place in the world.

A moving, beautifully written and delicately constructed story of love, division, transcendence, history and eco-consciousness, The Island of Missing Trees is Elif Shafak’s best work yet.

My thoughts are in purple and Bree's are in black.

M: I wish I could remember where I first saw this book.. I am pretty sure someone posted about it on Facebook and I immediately thought it looked like my kind of book. If I could remember who it was I would definitely be saying thank you because I loved this book, right from the first page. (Edited to say I remember now. Thanks again Mae!) How did you hear about this book?

B: I think it might’ve been on instagram and I’m not ashamed to say that I immediately added it to my buy list purely for the cover. I hadn’t even read the blurb, I thought that the cover was just so eyecatching that I knew I wanted it on my shelf. I ended up buying it in a little indie bookstore in the town where my husband was born when we visited my MIL and I went there with the specific goal of buying just that book. As soon as I walked in, it was on a big display. And when I finally read the blurb, I knew that it was something that I was pretty confident I was going to love.

M: I can see why the cover caught your eye. It is lovely. Let’s talk about the blurb and setting. This book tells the story of Cyprus from the 1970s through to the 2010s through the story of Kostas, a Greek Cypriot, and Defne, a Turkish Cypriot. Theirs was a love story that was going to be doomed from the start, forbidden due to the differences in culture and religion. The two young people used to meet at a tavern called The Happy Fig where the owners were happy to help them. However, as the ethnic tensions escalated, this relationship became even more forbidden.

How much did you know about Cyprus and the events of 1974?

B: Shamefully little I’m afraid. I know the bare basics of some of it and the divide between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. One of my dad’s lifelong best friends is a Greek Cypriot whose parents left when he was around 3 years old. But in terms of really knowing the island’s even modern history, I really only had the vaguest of understandings. I feel like this story definitely piqued my interest to learn a little more about it, especially because of The Fig Tree and it’s proprietors. If Kostas and Defne are a forbidden relationship, the owners of the tavern where they meet in secret are even more so - and it’s no wonder they are so understanding and supportive. Did you enjoy the way we learned about them and how they were woven into the story?

M: I could definitely understand why Yussuf and Yiorgis were so supportive of the young couple and I loved that The Fig Tree was such a welcoming place. It didn’t matter who you were, what you believed or where you were from you were welcome to meet and eat and drink. The atmosphere and ambience sounded so lovely, especially with the eponymous fig tree in the middle of the tavern. When the troubles started between ethnic groups, I was so sad to think of a place where tolerance was so embedded became one of early targets of those who are not tolerant. I guess that is probably not that unusual in such situations. And the tragedy only escalated from there.

Let’s talk about the fig tree shall we? I must confess that I was a little concerned initially about the role of the tree as a narrator. How did you feel about it?

B: The same! When I realised just who that narrator was in parts of the story I was definitely apprehensive about it. Maybe because I didn’t expect it to have that sort of element going in, it kind of took me by surprise. But I ended up absolutely loving that choice that the author made. It became this omniscient narrator that was able to give the reader this overarching view of things, from Cyprus and also after that. The author winds everything the fig has ‘seen’ and experienced into the story. I also really was surprised at how much I enjoyed learning about the actual tree itself - its growing cycles, its history. The idea of burying it for a British winter was fascinating to me and the fact that the book provided instructions including a little picture was great because it was different to how I pictured it in my head. I actually ended up googling “burying a fig tree in winter” after that and read about how it’s quite often done in places like Canada, etc as well, that have harsher winters than fig trees would be used to in their more native environments. It’s quite ingenious really! And quite amazing that the tree survives such a thing.

How did you find the way that portion of the narration played out for you? 


Head over to Bree's blog to see my answer to this question and more! 

And if you would like a taste of the writing in this book, I recently shared an excerpt which you can find here.

Rating 5/5


  1. I saw that this book is on the Women's Prize longlist, which got me interested. It sounded a little strange, but your review has me wanting to read it. Thanks!

  2. I definitely recommend it!

  3. I'm adding this to my list. I love the cover and it sounds interesting!