Division of countries is seldom a permanent solution to internal conflict. I came to understand this through the study and teaching of history. Look at Ireland; and the division of the Indian Empire into India and Pakistan and later Bangladesh; and Berlin and Germany after the Second World War. And look at Cyprus, which is the island of the title of this novel.
I have visited Cyprus twice. First in June 1967 when it was not a divided island, but a troubled one. I had been airlifted by the RAF out of Israel (more of this adventure another time perhaps). We stayed in Nicosia and while waiting for transport back to England spent some time on the ravishing empty beach of Kyrenia. This was the landing point for 6000 Turkish troops in 1974.
I returned thirty six years later in 2003 to Nicosia to work with some teachers. While the division of the Green Line was easing slightly, the huge Turkish flag, painted onto the mountainside, was still visible from Nicosia. And evidence of the violent division was still present in the severed streets and memorials for the dead. Everyone knew someone who had property in the north, or lost family members. While in London Greek and Turkish Cypriots got on fine, as I knew from my school, it was not so easy on the island that still bears the evidence of violence and division.
The Island of Missing Trees
The island is Cyprus. The narrative is spun around a Turkish woman and Greek man and their love affair in the middle of the island’s bloody civil war. We read of events in three time zones: violent unrest in 1974, the return of Kostas in the early 2000s and the effect on their marriage and their daughter in the present time.
The effects of the political tensions and conflict on the natural world is also captured in this innovative novel: the loss of trees, the entrapment of migrating birds, the mosquito and other life. Much of this narrative comes from the fig tree that Kostas brings to England. The fig tree is being buried for its protection at the start of the novel, but once it occupied a tavern in Nicosia, the only place where a Turkish Cypriot girl could meet her Greek Cypriot boyfriend.
The narrative in these three periods of Cypriot history is interlaced with information from the fig tree. I was not entirely convinced by the tree’s voice, however information provided by the tree is essential for the plot, and for understanding that political violence is also environmental violence.
Kosta and Defne were separated by the war, and by their families’ hostility to a Muslim-Christian marriage. But Defne agreed to return to London with Kostas, and they had a daughter, Ada. The story opens as Kostas and Ada face the first winter without Dafne, who has died. Their isolation from their Cypriot connections is made clear when Ada is asked to do some homework, over the holidays, based on her family’s history.
She had never met her relatives on either side. She knew they lived in Cyprus somewhere but that was about the extent of her knowledge. What kind of people were they? How did they spend their days? Would they recognize her if they passed her in the street or bumped into each other at the supermarket? The only close relative she had heard of was a certain aunt, Meryem, who sent cheerful postcards of sunny beaches and wildflower pastures which jarred with her complete lack of presence in their lives. (12-3)
Ada is grieving for her mother, Defne. The only light in the lives of father and daughter comes from the arrival of Meryem, visiting them in London for the first time. Ada begins to understand her family’s history, her mother’s struggles, from this vibrant character, who cooks and shops and tells stories from Cyprus with gusto.
The story of her parents’ relationship is told from the perspective of each character and of the fig tree against the backdrop of the history of the troubled island. We learn of the brutality of those times, especially as, in the second timeframe of the novel, Defne works in a team of archaeologists who are investigating mass graves. Both Kostas and Defne want to find out what happened to the gay owners of the Fig Tree Tavern, who disappeared in the war. Through this story we also learn about loss, and about the experiences of exile and migration.
Tourists who visit the island today are woefully ignorant about its history: violence, partition, the pain of separation, exile, and the natural world in danger. How quickly the world turns away. The division of the island was not a permanent solution to the issues.
This is a powerful story, and clearly judges of big literary prizes think it is successful in its scope. I enjoyed it and recommend it to readers.
Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city.
This is the first of her books that I have read, and I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, including a fig tree! It is a touching story, a reminder that migration is part of the natural order of the world, and a response to the disorder created by humans. But divisiveness is always destructive, of people’s lives and of the ecological order of the world.
On her blog Heavenali tells us that she loved the book, finding it ‘a beautiful read’.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp
Shortlisted for Costa Book Award 2021 and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022