CBR15 BINGO: On the Road, because the fig tree at the center of this story travels from Cyprus to London; also, main character Ada is on the path to understanding her family’s history, and Ada’s parents are immigrants from Cyprus
I need to stop reading Goodreads reviews that gush over a novel, because they only set me up for disappointment. I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did, because there are elements in here that are right up my alley: historical fiction; environmental themes; a deep love of nature. Sadly, I was disappointed in the execution.
The Island of Missing Trees covers three time periods: England in the late 2010s, where 16-year-old Ada Kazantzakis is struggling with a teenager’s emotions and the loss of her mother; Cyprus in the 1970s, where Ada’s parents–Greek Kostas and Turkish Defne–carry out a Romeo-and-Juliet-like romance (minus the suicides); and Cyprus in the early 2000s, where Kostas and Defne reignite their broken relationship. At the center of the story is a fig tree that grows in the middle of the tavern where Kostas and Defne meet in secret, a cutting of which is later brought to London to thrive in a new environment.
To relate the story chronologically (and very briefly, without too many spoilers), Kostas and Defne are young and in love on Cyprus, which is dicey considering the politics of the time period. They meet in secret at a tavern called the Happy Fig, owned by two men (one Greek, one Turkish) named Yiorgos and Yusuf. Kostas is unsure why Yiorgos and Yusuf are so willing to help Kostas and Defne keep their secret until he discovers that the tavern owners are also romantically attached. When war breaks out on Cyprus, the young people are separated, with Kostas being sent to London to live with an uncle. He continues to write to Defne, but she ignores his letters. Years later, Kostas (now a botanist) returns to Cyrus for work and seeks out his former lover. Though she is initially cool toward him, they eventually reconcile and decide to return to London together. Before they return, they visit the old tavern and discover that the fig tree is dying, so Kostas takes a cutting, hoping to save the tree (or some version of it) by replanting and caring for it in London.
In London, Kostas and Defne have a daughter named Ada. After Defne passes away (I won’t give away the details), Ada struggles emotionally and has a bizarre outburst at school where she screams for a full minute, an episode that is recorded and posted online. Defne’s sister Meryam comes to visit and tries to reconcile with Kostas and Ada, in spite of not having any contact with them for years. Through Meryam, Ada learns more about her family history and their lives in Cyprus.
Throughout the story, chapters about the family’s life are interspersed with narration by the fig plant, now living in Kostas’s garden in London.
The lovely descriptions of the island are bright spots in this novel, starting on page one: “Here is how I remember it: golden beaches, turquoise waters, lucid skies. Every year sea turtles would come ashore to lay their eggs in the powdery sand. The late-afternoon wind brought along the scent of gardenia, cyclamen, lavender, honeysuckle. Branching ropes of wisteria climbed up whitewashed walls, aspiring to reach the clouds, hopeful in the way only dreamers are. When the night kissed your skin, as it always did, you could smell the jasmine on its breath.” I never thought to visit Cyprus before, but those descriptions are persuasive.
The depiction of the relationship between Yiorgos and Yusuf is also wonderful. Their relationship is so genuine and tender, both understated and powerful. They provide a contrast to Kostas and Defne in that they have even more at stake, and their end is tragic without being maudlin. This book could have been an entry in the “Queer Lives” Bingo category; in fact, this pair probably had the most interesting relationship in the book, overshadowing the main story.
I also love that author Elif Shafak clearly has a deep affection for nature and trees. She sprinkles scientific information about fig tree Ficus carica into the text; truth be told, I would have liked even more of that! I admire that, among the war-torn land, Shafak hasn’t forgotten the affects on nature.
On the other hand, I had some significant issues with this novel. I like non-linear stories; however, the construction is unbalanced. The section about Kostas and Defne in the early 2000s feels like a very long, somewhat tedious tangent. While important to the story, it felt like a cumbersome sidebar, and I’m not sure bouncing between three separate time periods was the best way to go.
Second, there’s Ada. Why did she scream? Teenage angst? Ok. . . but, does that ever get resolved? And I’m supposed to believe a teacher let a student scream for a full minute, with nobody else from another classroom coming in to see what was up? Granted, I have never gone to school in England, so maybe I’m missing something. But then the video of her screaming goes viral and it sort of becomes inspirational, but the author doesn’t do anything to develop that point. It’s nice that Ada connects with her aunt and learns her family history, but I think the next step needs to be family therapy. For being such a central character, Ada doesn’t get a satisfactory story arc.
Finally, the narration by the fig plant. I love trees and I know they communicate. I know that they share information through the soil and even in the air. I know that acacia trees, for example, give off distress signals that let other acacia trees know that giraffes are in the area and are going to eat them. What they don’t do is “miss” people, or talk to neighboring trees about people they know, or listen in on political meetings. Sure, we don’t know everything about trees, but I don’t think I’m being disrespectful to suggest that trees don’t communicate in the same way people do. What I find disappointing and disrespectful is anthropomorphizing them in this way. This approach might have worked if the book were more whimsical in nature, or if the author had established a tone of magical realism from the beginning. But the way this was presented (and the magical realism “twist” at the end) did not work for me.
So there it is–some things I liked, some things I didn’t. I landed on a tepid 3 stars (just) based on the positive aspects, but I really wish this novel had gone another couple of rounds with an editor.