Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has spoken out against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan so forcefully that no one would question her political courage. In her essays and interviews, she has decried her homeland’s alarming descent into authoritarianism, and in return both Shafak and her husband, the journalist Eyup Can, have been targets of Erdogan’s intimidation.

It’s both amazing and encouraging that such state-sponsored thuggery has done nothing to diminish Shafak’s artistic creativity nor her faith in the power of storytelling.

Her latest novel, “The Island of Missing Trees,” takes us to Cyprus, a land of “golden beaches, turquoise waters, lucid skies” and frightful conflict. In 1974, two teenagers – a Greek boy named Kostas and a Turkish girl named Defne – risk their parents’ condemnation by meeting secretly at night. Desperate to avoid the prying eyes of gossipy neighbors, Kostas and Defne find refuge in the backroom of a tavern owned by two men who understand what it’s like to pursue forbidden romance.

The tavern is called the Happy Fig, and it is, indeed, a cheerful oasis. “Here,” Shafak writes, “stories of triumphs and travails were shared, long-standing accounts squared, laughter and tears combined, admissions and promises made, sins and secrets confessed.” Cloistered in the backroom of the Happy Fig, Kostas and Defne pledge themselves to each other, unaware of the trouble gathering on the horizon. “You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974,” Shafak warns. “And yet there they were, the two of them.”

American readers unfamiliar with the tumultuous history of Cyprus will appreciate how gracefully Shafak folds in details about the violence that swept across the island nation in the second half of the 20th century. But this is not a novel about the cataclysms that reshape nations; it’s about how those disasters recast ordinary lives.

Like Cyprus itself, “The Island of Missing Trees” is split by the Turkish military invasion in 1974. Kostas is sent to England in hopes of saving his life, while Defne remains behind as her homeland burns. The young lovers don’t know whether they’ll ever see each other again, but time eventually seems to answer that question. Separated by 2,000 miles, they discover that overcoming the difference between their cultures is the easy part. “Whenever something terrible happens to a country,” Shafak writes, “a chasm opens between those who go away and those who stay.”

Chapter by chapter, the book moves back and forth across several decades, solving some mysteries and raising others. The scenes of Kostas as a young man in Cyprus appear between scenes of him as a successful botanist in the United Kingdom, where he’s raising a teenage daughter. She’s eager to know more about her heritage, but her father is reluctant to speak of the past. Determined to understand the people and the circumstances that gave her a life in England, she persists asking questions of anyone who will answer her.

“The Island of Missing Trees” isn’t just a cleverly constructed novel; it’s explicitly about the way stories are constructed, the way meaning is created, and the way devotion persists. Without snarling readers in a thicket of confusion – don’t worry, each chapter is clearly dated – Shafak involves us in the task of assembling these events. “In real life,” she writes, “stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. In life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.”

But Shafak has something more strange in mind than merely assembling disparate events over 40 years. The narrator that opens this novel is a fig tree – an unusually talkative fig tree. Recalling its former life on Cyprus, the fig tree says, “I fled that place on board a plane, inside a suitcase made of soft black leather, never to return.” Now, raised from a cutting and thriving again under Kostas’ care in an English garden, the fig tree is our secret witness. “A tree is a memory keeper,” it reminds us. “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.”

With the melancholy wisdom of an immigrant, this loquacious fig tree hears the confessions of the grieving, and it recalls the joys and horrors of what happened during those tumultuous years back home. “I listen carefully,” the tree says, “and I find it astounding that trees, just through their presence, become a saviour for the downtrodden and a symbol of suffering for people on opposite sides.”

The fig tree isn’t the only narrator – parts of the novel are told from a traditional third-person point of view – but the tree’s arboreal perspective is grafted right onto the trunk of the story. Yes, it’s an odd conceit, particularly whimsical for a novel that explores such painful material, but not surprising from Shafak. As an author, she’s that rare alchemist who can mix grains of tragedy and delight without diminishing the savor of either. The results may sometimes feel surreal, but this technique allows her to capture the impossibly strange events of real life.

Near the end, Kostas’ precious tree tells us, “If it’s love you’re after, or love you have lost, come to the fig, always the fig.” This novel offers the same invitation – and the same reward.


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