The Island of Missing Trees
By Elif Shafak
Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, focuses on the lives of 16-year-old Ada and her father, Kostas Kazantzakis — a Cypriot immigrant in England — as the two try to cope with the death of Ada’s mother, Defne.
Ada’s experiences at school raise troubling questions about her own ethnic history, questions she finds difficult to deal with, since her parents have never really spoken to her of their lives back in Cyprus. All she knows is that her father is Greek and her mother Turkish, and that these two ethnicities have been locked in mortal conflict on Cyprus since the 1970s.
With the sudden arrival of Defne’s sister, Meryem, Ada gradually begins to understand the history of not only her parents, but also of Cyprus, the island ravaged first by colonisation and then by nationalist civil war.
As the novel progresses, we learn about the circumstances around Defne’s death, the nature of the ethnic conflict and some measure of the toll it has taken on the ecology, flora and fauna of the island caught silently in the midst of interminable violence. The narrative voice thus shifts between third-person, omniscient and the first-person perspective of a fig tree.
Traversing issues of exile, identity, mental illness, love, grief, parenthood, superstition and the environment, Elif Shafak’s latest novel is an ambitious one. And that is its primary problem
It is an ambitious attempt, this novel, not merely because literary takes on modern-day exile — a particularly devastating recurring theme from the previous century — are almost always prone to banalising the truly unspeakable scale and horror of the phenomenon (see Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays), but also because the book hopes to cover a lot more ground than that.
Exile, at times, becomes a drifting metaphor for the experiences of those who, for whatever reason — including gender, sexual orientation, mental illness, etc — find themselves unacceptable in the eyes of society. At the final count, in addition to issues of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental illness, forbidden love, death, parenting woes, superstitious beliefs, online bullying, suicide and dealing with grief, there’s also the all-important environmentalist concern at the heart of this narrative. Thus, at the very least, one might say that this is an ambitious novel.
And that’s the problem. Undoubtedly, Shafak is an artist with a profound sense of social responsibility and so would be drawn to the idea of giving space to as many voices as possible in the same story. In practice, though, it takes away from character development and analysis, and leaves loose ends here and there, unless the book is as long as human history.
For instance, Ada is presented as an exceptionally empathetic individual, to the point where it is difficult to determine whether empathy isn’t a superhuman quality in her. She can see (hallucinate?) a butterfly that allows her to know exactly what sorrows her classmates suffer in their private lives. If the butterfly peers inside a boy’s shirt, Ada is able to count the bruises on his body.
This is beyond remarkable and sets the novel up for what may be a magical realist tale. But this power is quietly dropped from the narrative somewhere along the way and never brought up ever again. Wisely, perhaps, since this ability could quite possibly render a significant chunk of the book redundant.
Even more significantly, the author appears weighed down by a sense of urgency to inform the reader too directly — and, therefore, a bit artlessly — of a wide variety of facts and figures necessary perhaps for a fuller comprehension of the narrative.
To this end, Shafak relies on the charismatic fig tree as her stand-in commentator. Serving variously as historian, anthropologist, philosopher and ornithologist, it is essentially an expert in all fields imaginable that could possibly serve the author’s purpose, directly addressing the reader as needed.
The character on its own is fine, enjoyable, a relief even from the otherwise constantly heightened emotions of characters dealing serially with forbidden love and war, and it also serves a rather random, but crucial, function revealed at the end. Nevertheless, the fig tree’s voice remains a jarring anomaly in the novel’s context.
Finally, there is a rushed quality to the prose, and instances of fine craftsmanship too few for the novel to really have the kind of impact it needs, considering the political burdens it very consciously takes on — powerful imagery that stays with the reader is usually more effective than sentimental passages that sound forced and too obviously motivated to induce sympathy.
At its best, Shafak’s writing does ring surprisingly universal. Too many citizens of too many postcolonial nations will find much in this book unfortunately recognisable: “They call it the Green Line, the partition that cuts through Cyprus, aiming to separate Greeks from Turks, Christians from Muslims. It acquired its name not because it was marked with mile after mile of primaeval forest, but simply because a British major general, setting out to draw the border on a map spread out before him, happened to use a green chinagraph pencil.”
But if a great novel is one that reinvents the genre in at least some small way, then The Island of Lost Trees might not qualify. The prose is not exceptional. The characters — beyond the political urgency one may ascribe to their existence — are not remarkable. The subject matter has also not been explored in ways that do more than rely on oft-explored binaries, or highlight the insidious nature of meta-narratives such as nationalism.
That being said, it is not unworthy of being read. Its intended audience appears to be young people and it may even inspire an inexperienced reader into exploring higher literary art. Or, if literature for you must be handmaiden to some sort of practical purpose, then this book might inspire a measure of empathy, perhaps at least a softening among those who need it most.
Undoubtedly, as the novel attests, for the vast majority of people who suffer exile, there is no resolution. No happy ending. Reading a book about the experience of one, or 10, does not automatically elevate you to the rank of a goodie. For that, one has to set the book aside, leave the comfortable home and go see what can be done in real life.
The reviewer is a bibliophile
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 17th, 2022