The Island of Missing Trees feels like a strange title until you realise how hard Elif Shafak makes trees work in her latest novel, an epic tale about love, grief and memory set in Cyprus and London between 1974 and the ‘late 2010s’.
One tree, a fig or ficus carica, narrates half the story, tipping Shafak’s 12th novel into myth territory. The others — the missing trees — are stand-ins for those killed in the 1974 Cypriot civil war, metaphors labouring as hard as plants for the British-Turkish author who fled Turkey after being prosecuted for ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul.
The action opens in December, in a school in north London, where 16-year-old Ada (whose Turkish-Cypriot mother, Defne, died the previous January) is in a history lesson. Her teacher is gearing up to study migration and generational change. Everyone needs to interview an elderly relative, but Ada knows that her father, Kostas, a Greek-Cypriotbotanist, won’t talk about her family’s past. She finds herself screaming, and can’t stop: ‘Her voice was a flying carpet that lifted her up and carried her against her will.’
At home, her father is digging a trench to bury the fig tree — which turns out to be a cutting from a tree that watched over his emerging affair with Defne — to save it from what is poised to be a harsh British winter. People are stockpiling, ‘as if getting ready for a siege’: this is weather as war, the enemy as climate change — one of what verges on a checklist of themes as Shafak spins between Ada’s teenage angst and her parents’ complicated history.