Once upon a memory, at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, there lay an island so beautiful and blue that the many travellers, pilgrims, crusaders and merchants who fell in love with it either wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries.
I really wanted to love this book.
It sounded intriguing. I love trees and I love learning the history of a place I know very little about (Cyprus). I’ve been meaning to read a book by Elif Shafak for ages as I have two of her earlier books on my TBR pile. So when The Island of Missing Trees came up as my February book group book, I thought, ‘great’!
But I really struggled with it, especially in the beginning stages of the story. The characters failed to become fully-fleshed, their dialogue was often awkward and the talking tree…well *insert shrug*. My book group, however, was unanimous in adoring the book and I left the gathering feeling rather mean-spritied for not liking it as much as they did (full disclosure, I had only read half the book at this point).
Due to the heartfelt discussion evoked by this book, I determined to finish it.
Many members of my book group are English ex-pats or spent large chunks of their adult lives living in foreign countries due to their work or their husband’s work. They responded in large part to this sense of displacement depicted in the book – having two homes and trying to go back to the original one with your new experiences and feeling like you don’t belong anywhere in the end.
There was also a lot of love for the talking fig tree.
I’ve only lived overseas for ten months in one stretch, but my father was a bankie, so we moved every 4-5 years when I was a child. I know what it is like to be uprooted and to start somewhere completely different where you know nobody at all except your immediate family. I usually respond very strongly to books about belonging, starting over, moving on but I did not respond to these elements in the story at all.
As for the talking tree.
It could have worked. For instance, I love the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Trees as wise, old receptacles of knowledge and history who have seen a vast amount of human suffering and change is something I am more than happy to contemplate. As with old buildings, we’ve all said, ‘if only trees could talk’, ‘if only these walls could talk’. Trouble is this particular fig tree sounded more like a mix between a Wikipedia page and an agony aunt than a true sage!
A Romeo and Juliet romance sits at the heart of the story.
When a Greek man falls in love with a Turkish woman on the island of Cyprus in the early 1970’s, you know it’s going to be complicated. The story moves from the present day (pre-Covid) in London, back in time to 1974 when our young couple are first falling in love and to the early 2000’s when they meet again. War trauma, displacement, grief, love and loss are woven together to create this story about Ada’s family – her parents love affair, what happened to her aunt who stayed behind, their life in England, and Ada’s fragmented understanding of her family history.
The part I responded to the most was when the lovers found each other again after a significant time apart. Mr Books and I share a similar story. Shafak’s description of our bodies being like a map to an earlier time, an earlier you, felt very apt indeed.
…it was their bodies that remembered what they had long forgotten….The flesh had a power of recall of its own, memory tattooed on the skin, layer upon layer.
It is a map, the body of an ex-lover, pulling you into its depth and bringing you back to a part of yourself that you thought had been left behind somewhere. It is a mirror, too, though chipped and cracked, showing all the ways you have changed…
One of the many themes explored by Shafak is intergenerational trauma, especially how children inherit their parents and grandparents trauma even when those people have determined not to inflict their past onto the next generation. It still happens. The trauma leeches out in other ways, even the decision to not talk about it is a common response to trauma, and has its own consequences.
My failure to connect with any of the characters though, meant this was purely a reading exercise rather than the emotional or psychological journey shared by the rest of my book group.
The highlight for me was the food.
A sumptious breakfast on p.67 consisted of,
Grilled halloumi with za’atar, baked feta with honey, sesame halva, stuffed tomatoes, green olives with fennel, bread rolls with black olive spread, fried peppers, spicy sausage, spinach börek, puff-pastry cheese straws, pomrgranate molasses with tahini, hawthorn jelly, quince jam and a large pan of poached eggs with garlic yoghurt were all neatly arrayed on the table.
I have since made, and can highly recommend, the grilled haloumi with za’atar and the baked feta with honey – yum!
The Happy Fig was the cafe on Cyprus were our young lovers would meet in secret. It was also the home of the original talking tree. Shafak thought it a good idea to share with her readers the entire menu complete with appetizers, soups, desserts, chef specials, drinks and a ‘To Sober Up’ option (Tripe soup with gralic, vinegar, dried lime, seven spices and herbs)!
However it was the salad options that caught my eye.
Our book club gatherings are usually post-dinner, the host simply provides some wine, snacks (savoury & sweet) and a choice of teas. The Christmas one though is a dinner out and our February meet is a picnic in the park where we all bring a plate to share. I decided to make one of the three salads from the menu.
The ingredients below are a result of combining & reinventing several online recipes to include the ingredients I like best.
Cypriot Village Salad
Cypriot Greek Salad usually has more ingredients than a Greek Village Salad. It includes fresh coriander, rocket, capers, lettuce and purslane and other ingredients depending on the season.
- 4 tomatoes
- 4 small cucumbers
- 1 medium-sized red onion
- 1 green capsicum
- 125g of feta cheese
- 1/2 cup of black olives
- Parsley and caper leaves
- Olive oil, oregano, lemon, vinegar
Grilled Haloumi Salad with Orange & Mint
- 4 oranges
- 400g haloumi cheese
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large handful flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves, torn
- 3 tablespoons mint leaves, torn
- 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- 70 g (2 1/2 oz/3/4 cup) walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon sumac
Watermelon & Pomegranate Salad with Whipped Feta
- 1 kg seedless watermelon, peeled and cut into chunks
- 40 g (¼ cup) toasted almonds, coarsely chopped
- Seeds from ½ pomegranate
- 1 small French shallot, thinly sliced
- 35 g (1 cup) wild rocket (arugula)
- 1 large handful mint leaves
- 2½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- Finely grated zest and juice of ½ lemon, or to taste
- ½ small garlic clove, finely chopped
- Sumac, for dusting
- 150g feta cheese
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Finely grated zest and juice of ½ lemon
- ½ small garlic clove
In the end, for our picnic, I chose the Village Salad. I used capers instead of caper leaves. It went beautifully with all the frittatas and meatballs that the others brought.
To sum up, The Island of Missing Trees was a book about persistence and the art of skimming.
Some sections were lovely, fascinating, absorbing, but many more sections were labored, self-indulgent or ended up going nowhere (i.e Ada’s scream that went viral, Aunt Meryem’s quirky, exotic, OTT ‘otherness’). The talking fig that one minute was telling us the history of Cyprus; the next how to live a good, fruitful, loving life got rather tiresome by the end. I think perhaps Shafak tried to do too much. When I came to add tags for this post, I realised how many themes were touched on – war and war crimes, trauma, exile, post-colonialism, ecology and environment, social media, grief and loss, star-crossed lovers just to name a few. Too many themes and not enough convincing character development.
- Shortlisted for The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize (2022)
- Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2022)
- On spelling:
- Some of you may have noticed recently, especially in regard to the tragic earthquake that occured in northern Syria & southern Turkey, that a new spelling and pronounciation has been used by some news outlets for Turkey. I was curious.
- It turns out that back in May 2022, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu requested the UN to refer to his country by its Turkish-language name: Türkiye. They agreed. As did the US State Department and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
- On pronunciation:
- The Turkish pronunciation is roughly – TURK-i-ye.
- However Turkish has three distinct vowels sounds that we do not have in English – ü being one of them, so it is hard for many of us to get it just right.
- The Turkish request to change the spelling and pronunciation has been compared to that by Ukrainians who asked Western media to drop the possessive-style ‘the’ when referring to Ukraine along with the more recent adoption of local pronunciation for Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities by news outlets.
A tree is a memory keeper. Tangled beneath our roots, hidden inside our trunks, are the sinews of history, the ruins of wars nobody came to win, the bones of the missing.
What I meant was, some people stand in front of a tree and the first thing they notice is the trunk. These are the ones who prioritize order, safety, rules, continuity. Then there are those who pick out the branches before anything else. They yearn for change, a sense of freedom. And then there are those who are drawn to the roots, though concealed under the ground. They have a deep emotional attachment to their heritage, identity, traditions.
I’m drawn to the leaves and bark of trees. And flowers if they have them. What does that say about me?
Favourite or Forget?
It’s not terrible; it’s just not great either. It’s missing something that I’m still trying to put my finger on. I realise that this puts me in a minority – the look of disappointment on the faces of my book group when I said I wasn’t enjoying the characters or the writing will haunt me forever!
From my TBR: This reading copy has been lying around since June or July 2021.
Title: The Island of Missing Trees Author: Elif Shafak ISBN: 9780241435007 Imprint: Viking Published: 5 August 2021 Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 354 Dates Read: 15 January 2023 - 13 February 2023
|This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.|
24 thoughts on “The Island of Missing Trees | Elif Shafak”
I wasn’t going to read your review yet, because I have this on the TBR, but my eye caught the expression ‘I wanted to love this’ and I couldn’t help myself.
And the bonus was the recipes!
I’ll be curious to hear if your emigration experience will have the same effect for you as it did for some of my book group. I will certainly try her other books still on my TBR.
I’m waiting to get a new kitchen whiz so I can try the watermelon salad with whipped feta – it sounds delicious.
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I love Greek food, and your recipes/pictures had me salivating. I think I could do without a Wikipedia tree though, the novelist should be able to weave the background into the story without clunky devices.
I’m very much in the minority re the talking tree. Goodreads is full of rave reviews. But yes, I think I would have preferred the historical parts more if they had been delivered differently.
I was wondering whether to approach Shafak for the first time via this title but now I’m less enamoured, recipes notwithstanding! Hmm, I shall have to think about it…
I haven’t read her earlier books, but do have 2 on my tbr. I’m still keen to try them as I’ve heard so many good things about them over the years. But me expectations have been tempered somewhat by this experience.
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My favorite character was Meryem and I liked the developing relationship between Meryem and Ada, but my strongest connection was with the natural world in the book. Usually, research-heavy chunks annoy me, but I rarely minded it here and am not sure why. Maybe because Shafak was so fascinated herself? And the food was great!
You are in fine company. My entire book group loved the natural world elements too and also enjoyed the aunt/niece relationship.
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oh dear, that’s sad, because it’s getting near to the top of my pile. So far, I’ve only mildly liked Shafak’s books and usually found something I didn’t like about them.
‘Mildly liked’ sums up my reading experience here perfectly! Makes me a little nervous about the other 2 books on my tbr.
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I’ve read quite a few of her books having years ago stumbled across The Forty Rules of Love, which was a dual narrative, where one story really outshine the other, but still I loved it for the parts that were truly great. The Bastard of Istanbul was a great read, inspired in part by her own very maternal upbringing.
I think I’ll always read her work due to that perspective she brings, of straddling east and west, of having lived in another culture, of someone who can see what many are unable to, due to constantly stepping outside ones own culture.
Great review and appreciation for the recipes, beautiful pictures. I’m waiting for my copy of the book, having only just recently bought it, happy to read all the discussion and intrigued to see how I find it.
I agree with Claire…great review and an honest review. Some books just do not settle well with readers even though “book group” thinks differently!
PS: I have no more reviews on blog waiting to be published….H.F. Jeffers was the last…so now it is crunch time for me. I hope some toast with strawberry jam will motive me!
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Let me know what you decide over your jam on toast.
I’m glad to find someone else didn’t like this book very much. I called my post on it The Island of Disappointing Trees! I usually love Shafak’s work but this one made me want to scream – a bit like Ada.
Oh that is good to know! I certainly felt like an outlier at book group and thought I judged too harshly.
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I have heard so much about this book and intend to read it. The reviews have been diverse, but I will try it out nevertheless.
Given that more people love this than feel so-so like me, I think you should try it for yourself. Odds are in your favour 🙂
I can’t remember who, but I’ve definitely read another blogger’s post about how they didn’t like this or the talking tree! It doesn’t really appeal to me. Thank you for the gorgeous food – you’ve inspired my weekend cooking 🙂
The salads sound amaxing don’t they? I’m looking forward to trying the other ones soon.
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This book has been on my radar for awhile (my mate Simon Savidge has raves about it) but the talking tree element had slightly put me off and I am yet to buy or borrow the book. Now having read your review I’m thinking my best option would be to borrow it so I can at least give it a try without wasting $32 to do so! The author is an interesting person though, someone who straddles East and West, so I’m intrigued by the insights she might bring…
Yes, the author still intrigues me and I will definitely read the 2 books still on my TBR (The Forty Rules of Love & 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World) but my expectations have now been tempered.