The Island of Missing Trees
by Elif Shafak
When viewing Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, the conventional response is that the skeletal subject in the foreground is screaming. Munch, however, knew it was the rest of the world that was screaming all around this beleaguered figure.
The Island of Missing Trees gives us both. The story starts with Ada, unable to stop herself screaming in class at school, terrifying herself and annoying her teacher and classmates for 52 seconds. Then the noise branches out and we sense the scream all around, thousands of miles away, through the decades. We hear the scream in the conflict that devastated Cyprus in the 1970s, between the Greeks and the Turks, following the extensive damage by British colonialism. We hear the screeching of falling bombs and shrink from the horror of the devastation they cause. We bewail the loss of loved ones. And then there is the scream inaudible to humans; the scream of trees being cut down for burning and to fuel the war effort.
One tree survives amidst the chaos, home and away, and lives to tell the tale of all Cyprus. The fig tree is the alternate narrator in the book, along with Shafak’s more conventional narrative voice. An example of magical realism, perhaps? I prefer to regard it as natural mysticism. Either way, the tree’s voice comes across as entirely natural, conveying emotion, sadness, warmth and understanding, with a few secrets to reveal too. This is a consummate story-teller with a passion for informing and healing.
We learn that many trees have powers suited to specific needs. For inspiration, artists will benefit from a blue jacaranda, or a mimosa. Weeping willows bring solace. Beech trees instil wisdom, pine trees intelligence. For bravery, opt for a rowan. Hazels encourage generosity. Spruce or ginkgo trees promise friends or friendship. And finally, the fig tree delivers what we all need most. This is not money.
The fig tree starts with a puzzle. What does it mean to bury a tree? This doesn’t just mean planting it. Nor does it mean hiding it in the ground. This particular tree, or rather a cutting that has been transported furtively in a suitcase on a long and dangerous voyage, needs protection from a cold Britain. Burying a tree, then, facilitates survival and longevity.
Being underground doesn’t stop the tree sharing memories. The tree begins by conveying the natural wonders of the island in rhythmic, beautiful language that seems to transcend human experience (though the author deserves much credit!). We read of “golden beaches, turquoise waters, lucid skies” and
“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.”
Our arboreal narrator also recalls interactions with humans, and spreading her branches inside The Happy Fig, a restaurant owned by Yiorgos And Yusuf. Yiorgos is Greek and Christian, Yusuf is Turkish and Muslim. They love each other and show kindness to all, and want merely to live in peace. They are also surrounded by hatred and risk. The restaurateurs invite another pair of daring lovers, Kostas and Defne, to enjoy secret romantic trysts in the restaurant. The fig tree delights in bringing us love stories from the past and present, relationships made hard by suspicious families and cultural disapproval.
Since 1974, Cyprus has been artificially split between the North and the South, with the respective regions controlled by the Turkish and the Greek, with a United Nations buffer zone in between. The island was part of the heinous British Empire from 1925 to 1960, and the UK still has a lingering presence. But Kostas and Defne, and no doubt many Cypriots, think of themselves merely as islanders.
Cyprus: the divided island
Inevitably, there is conflict and heartbreak in the story. Many islanders are killed or left behind. Those who survive have to try to make sense of the past and figure out how to move on. Yet despite all the social discord and separation, there remains hope. The fig tree seems to be urging us to share a collective sense of belonging and resilience. And as readers, we are offered the chance to learn, to engage, to reflect and to absorb. We are invited to live through the history and to share the experience. For me the journey through the pages is sorrowful but also life enhancing.
This brings me back to nature. For anyone who has the privilege of looking after fig trees, this story is even more resonant. For the last three years I have been honoured to host two fig trees on my allotment. I say my allotment, but the trees were there long before me, and I dare say they will outlast my custody of this charming plot of land. These trees have filled my heart with even more love for the natural world than I ever enjoyed before.
The trees are welcoming, soothing, vital to my own sense of belonging and well-being. My own island is bereft of joy in so many ways. Loud and screaming too. But I have a place to escape to, where I can explore and be in harmony with the earth and simply breathe.
My fig trees also establish a place for me in a magical timeline stemming from the Garden of Eden. This connects me with human misbehaviour and shame, I accept, but also with the power of choice and knowledge through awakening. I can advance, as well as look back.
A haven of peace...
...renewal and growth. And all that green!
I have strayed a little from Elif Shafak’s island and her literary masterpiece. And yet I feel a collective sense of belonging, of communion with the author and her characters, both within and beyond the pages. The Island of Missing Trees bring us so much that is familiar; heartbreak and despair, dreams and determination, love and conflict. And yet the novel also advances the possibilities for story-telling, bringing us wisdom, understanding, heightened sensitivity and consciousness from a unique and enchanting source. I am profoundly grateful that my bookshelf is not missing this tree.
© Eddie Hewitt 2022