Friday, December 03, 2021

“The Island of Missing Trees”

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published 2021.

Many chapters of this painful and beautiful novel are narrated by a very special fig tree. She (yes, fig trees are female) contributes in a major way to the plot of the novel. The human family at the center of the book is tormented by the complex background of their native Cyprus, a violently divided society with vast hostility between the Turkish and the Greek populations. The fig tree, a fascinating character, bears witness to the family story, and also explains a great deal of natural history and botany as seen by a tree. We learn about the consciousness of plants, and her own very long history. Here is her introduction:
"I am a Ficus carica, known as the edible common fig, though I can assure you there’s nothing common about me. I am a proud member of the great mulberry family of Moraceae from the kingdom of Plantae. Originating in Asia Minor, I can be found across a vast geography from California to Portugal and Lebanon, from the shores of the Black Sea to the hills of Afghanistan and the valleys of India. (p. 23)

Our fig tree originally lived in the central room of a beautiful tavern in Cyprus called The Happy Fig. Says the tree:

"Every visitor to Cyprus wanted to dine here – and taste its famous stuffed courgette flowers followed by chicken souvlaki, cooked over open-air charcoal – if they were so lucky as to find a table. In this very spot was offered the best food, the best music, the best wine and the best dessert, speciality of the house – oven-roasted figs with honey and aniseed ice cream. But there was something else to the place, too, so said its regular customers: it made one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its immoderate sorrows. I was tall, robust, self-confident and, surprisingly for my age, still laden with rich, sweet figs, each giving off a perfumed scent." (pp. 54-55).

Other trees, plants, insects, and an entire life under and around growing plants all occupy the thoughts of the fig tree. For example: "Figs are sensual, soft, mysterious, emotional, lyrical, spiritual, self-contained and introverted. Carobs like things to be unsentimental, material, practical, measurable." (p. 119). 

The fig-tree narrator was grown from a cutting of the original tree and replanted in a garden in England. She has great powers of observation about the human family who live with her and tend to her. The family's complex story is also narrated by an omniscient voice alternating with that of the fig tree. A strange book -- but very effectively written. 

The principal human character in the story is Ada, a British teenager with a lot of baggage from her Cypriot origins. Her ethnically Turkish mother and Greek father were secret teenage lovers during the civil war that raged in Cyprus in the 1970s. The omniscient narrator goes back and forth among the stories of their nearly-doomed love affair in 1974, the horrors of civil war and ethnic cleansing, and their long separation. The book begins with the daughter, a high-school student in the late 2010s, so we know that the separated lovers were eventually reunited: but the details would be a spoiler here.

Horrors of the Cypriot civil war and its aftermath haunt the entire novel -- including the consciousness of the fig tree. Both Greek and Turkish citizens disappeared in the fighting and terrorist actions. Their families mourned without being able to bury their dead. This loss is a major theme, and the author also connects the Cypriot struggle to other twentieth century wars that caused similar suffering and loss. These wars and their victims seem endless: people who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the Guatemala war in the 1990s, bodies hidden during the brutal Argentine regime of the 1980s, bodies or even living people thrown from planes during the regime of Pinochet in Chile, victims of the Nazi era in Germany, as well as of more recent wars in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Iraq. It's a brutal book -- but also beautiful. 

Ada learns much about her ancestors in Cyprus from her aunt, who has never before visited her in England. Throughout the novel, the culture is explained in terms of food. Here is just one of numerous food descriptions that I enjoyed:

"When Ada woke up the next morning, the house was filled with unusual smells. Her aunt had prepared breakfast – or a banquet, more like it. Grilled halloumi with za’atar, baked feta with honey, sesame halva, stuffed tomatoes, green olives with fennel, bread rolls with black olive spread, fried peppers, spicy sausage, spinach börek, puff-pastry cheese straws, pomegranate molasses with tahini, hawthorn jelly, quince jam and a large pan of poached eggs with garlic yogurt were all neatly arrayed on the table." (p. 67).  

I have read several other books by Elif Shafak, a Turkish-British writer, and I consider her to be a master of wonderful and magical narratives and of incredibly creative ways to include food in a novel. I'm intrigued by so much in the book. For example, by references to the poet Cavafy, by descriptions of the birds and butterflies that live in the beautiful natural worlds of both Cyprus and England, and by the convincing portrayal of so many characters -- including the fig tree.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.


Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Your review is excellent and I'm going to make aniseed ice cream during fig season as the flavour combination intrigues me.

Anne in the kitchen said...

This sounds like a book I would love reading. I will have to see if it is on my library wireless list. Thank you for the review

Gretchen said...

This writer does sounds very creative. The writing you shared is beautiful. Glad you enjoyed this.

Miaismine said...

Oh! This books sounds amazing! It is going on my 2022 TBR list! Thank you so much for sharing! I'm off to look for it! :)

Marg said...

This sounds like such a fun book, and definitely my kind of read! I am adding it to my TBR pile.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Both the human narrator and the tree narrator have interesting backstories, and the setting is powerful. I will look for this one.

thecuecard said...

A fig tree narrator? How inventive. We had a fig tree once growing up in California .... and it was quite a mess in our drive way .... figs plop off all over .. .. and attract all sorts of critters & insects. But I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

Elza Reads said...

What a beautiful, beautiful review Mae...! I am so excited to start reading this one now. I will keep you posted.

Have you read Songbirds by Christy Lefteri? I think you will love that book too.

Lots of Love,

Mareli & Elza

Elza Reads said...

This is such a lovely review Mae! Wow. I'm not even halfway through yet, but I believe you've captured the essence of this book and especially the Fig Tree, perfectly.

Thanks for sending it to me!

Elza Reads