Book review: The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

This tale of two star-crossed lovers in 1970s Cyprus is moving and enriching, writes Allan Massie, but it would be even better without the author’s various pronouncements on the state of the world

Elif Shafak PIC: David Hartley//Shutterstock

Elif Shafak is fashionable and successful, very much a writer in tune with the approved causes and issues of our times. This means she wins prizes, sits on committees, is an admired cultural-political figure. It would be quite easy to be irritated by this, all the more so because her writing is not without a whimsical self-indulgence, some of the chapters in her new novel being narrated by a fig-tree. Nevertheless, this politically-so-correct novel is also good, often moving, intelligent and beautifully written. One may even set a prejudice against talking trees aside when one realizes that Shafak rather neatly employs her fig tree to impart necessary information about the historical background to her story.

Essentially the story – set in Cyprus and London – is simple, a variation on the old Romeo and Juliet theme. Koustas and Defni are young lovers. He is Greek and Christian, she is Turkish and Muslim. They are 18 in 1974 when tension between the two communities in the Republic of Cyprus, established after the British withdrawal in 1960, is about to lead to war and the partition of the island. The only place the lovers can meet is a café called The Fig Tree where its proprietors, a gay couple, one Greek, one Turkish, are sympathetically eager to provide the young lovers with a safe meeting place in a back room.

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All this is flashback, for the novel begins in London in the “late 2010s.” Defni is dead, Koustas is protecting his own fig-tree against a coming storm, and their daughter Ada is 16. Ada has never visited Cyprus, knows nothing of her family history and is indignant when Koustas tells her that Defni’s sister, her Aunt Meryem, is coming to visit them. Why? She never did so when Defni was alive.

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

This is the set-up. The novel then alternates between excavation of the past and Meryem’s efforts to win Ada’s confidence and teach her about her family heritage. It is complicated. At the same time much that Meryem tells Ada while teaching her about Turkish food and trying to persuade her not to live on a diet of cereals and toasties is pleasing and amusing.

Information about Defni, the unhappiness which, to Meryem’s dismay, led her into alcoholism, and her work for the Committee on Missing Persons, searching out the graves of victims of civil wars in Spain and Chile as well as Cyprus, is fascinating. In one sense the theme of the novel is a traditional one: the education of a young girl, and Ada is a convincing and sympathetic character. So too is Koustas, a gentle and loving man who has devoted his life to the study of trees.

On the personal side this is a very good and continuously interesting novel. The same may be said of the evocation of Cyprus, so well done that readers are likely to long to visit the island. Yet, even setting aside the chapters in the voice of the fig tree, which strain credulity and some readers may prefer to skip, one can’t avoid concluding that Shafak crams too much into the novel. There are long passages, for instance, about climate change, passages which, as is usual, even unavoidable in this sort of novel, cannot rise about the level of an article on The Guardian’s comment page. The same may be said of Koustas’s lessons about trees. A lot of this novel is journalism – intelligent, good-quality journalism, but journalism all the same.

Yet there are so many fine things here. The treatment of lives damaged by public events is excellent. So is the evocation of Cyprus, its history, landscape and culture. Whenever the author forgets that she is a public figure making important pronouncements about the state of the world and instead remembers that she is a novelist breathing life into her imagined characters, the novel is delightful, beautiful, moving and enriching. But when you have a fig tree declaring that “we fig trees hold bats in high regard, we know how essential they are for the ecosystem,” it is hard not to think “enough of this stuff, novels are about people.”

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak, Viking, 347pp, £14.99. Elif Shafak is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 25 August

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