The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Star-crossed lovers and talking trees…

😦 😦

This is the tale of star-crossed lovers in Cyprus at the time of the short but brutal civil war in 1974, which left the island partitioned under the supervision of UN peacekeepers. Defne is Turkish, Kostas is Greek. When the book begins, sometime in the late 2010s in London, we learn that they came to London, married and had a daughter, Ada, who is now sixteen. Defne is recently dead and Kostas and Ada are trying to come to terms with their loss. Meantime (I kid you not) the fig tree in their garden tells us the story of Kostas’ and Defne’s youthful love affair and how it led to this point, along with lots of Cypriot history and tales of the birds and insects that inhabit the island. The tree also treats us to some deep philosophical thinking and recounts conversations it has had with various creatures that have visited it over the years.

* * * * *

A butterfly is telling a tree what it read on a gravestone. The tree muses…

“… in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces”

FF muses: in real life, butterflies don’t read or talk to trees, and trees don’t think big philosophical thoughts and then write them in a book. When you’re trying to persuade your reader to believe in talking butterflies, best to leave real life out of the picture.

* * * * *

I loved Shafak’s last book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, and so was highly anticipating this one. Unfortunately I found it hard to believe this was written by the same person. The lightness of touch and beauty of language is all gone – in its place is a potted history of the Cypriot civil war and the atrocities carried out by both sides, told in such a banal fashion that it is about as emotional as reading the entry on the war in wikipedia. The device of having talking trees, birds and insects adds nothing – there’s no sense of magic or mysticism about it. Shafak merely uses them to dump information on the reader, mostly with the clear intent of inducing tears. If the atrocities aren’t enough to do it, throw in some cruelty to songbirds, sad stories about dead children, homophobic persecution, maybe an abortion, or how about a suicide. It’s all so obviously manipulative it entirely failed to produce the intended effect on this hard-hearted reader.

* * * * *

As my earlier quote, I think, shows clearly, Shafak is unaware of her own irony. As well as juxtaposing real life with talking trees, she has one of her characters actually say, after chapter upon chapter of trying to make the reader sob…

If you weep for all the sorrows in this world, in the end you will have no eyes.

Quite.

* * * * *

Elif Shafak

What can I say about the central story? Well, I suppose I can say that we’ve all read the star-crossed lovers story so often that an author would have to do it exceptionally well to make it feel anything other than trite and stale. Sadly Shafak brings nothing new to the table – again, the hackneyed story is merely a vehicle for her to talk about the war. I’m not in any way trying to minimise the horror of civil war in general or the Cypriot experience in particular. But if one wants to write a history book then one should write a history book. If, however, one wants to write fiction set in a war, then something more is needed than an overused trope for a plot and a bunch of talking insects. There is a ton of stuff too about the natural world – mosquitoes and malaria, bird migrations, and endless tree lore, or maybe folklore would be a more accurate word – which all seemed utterly extraneous. I began to skip all the parts narrated by the tree about halfway through and missed nothing relevant to the plot. And then in the end Shafak gives us a pseudo-mystical conclusion right up there in the Harold Fry class of saccharin sickliness.

I’m trying hard to think of any positives to put against all these negatives, but I’m failing, I’m afraid. The best I can say is that plenty of people seem to be loving this – however, I’m not one of them. One of the most disappointing reads of the year for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking via NetGalley.

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63 thoughts on “The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

  1. I enjoyed The Architect’s Apprentice but that only had hints of magical realism.
    Your disdain for trees dispensing wisdom and butterflies reading made me laugh aloud. I don’t think anyone has ever written anything better about magical trees than Enid Blyton. Wisha-wisha-wisha.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hahaha, I think I was more open to talking trees back in my Blyton period! Yes, 10 Minutes only had a touch of magical realism too, and the characterisation was wonderful, whereas in this the characters never really came to life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a shame – I read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds on your recommendation and loved it, and I was more intrigued by this premise than that, but all the things you mention would also really aggravate me. (Though your comments about the irony of writing “real life” in a book heavy with magical realism made me laugh).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, I’m uber-resistant to magical realism, I must admit, so talking trees were always going to be an issue! 😉 I think 10 Minutes was concentrating on the characters, whereas this one seemed to be an excuse to tell a bit of history – the characters never became friends to me the way they did in 10 Minutes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear! I already have a copy of this, based on just how much I admired 10 Minutes 38 Seconds (I didn’t expect to, but I did). I do remember thinking that the star-crossed lovers thing has been done a time or two and, while I’m fairly tolerant of magic realism I’m always afraid it will swallow the novel . . . Well, I’ll see when I get to the book myself! Thanks for an honest (as you said, many are loving this novel) and very entertaining review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 10 Minutes was an unexpected one for me too, but I loved it and still think of those characters as friends, whereas in this one the characters never came alive for me. But I do hope you’re one of the ones who loves it! I’m totally resistant to magical realism, so if you can tolerate it better than maybe that will make all the difference. Fingers crossed!

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  4. Having just checked out your review of 10 minutes 38 Seconds, it sounds wonderful, and I would be tempted to try it. I’ll not attempt to find the missing trees though, it sounds as if they are better off staying lost, to this particular reader anyway. I’m not a great fan of Magical Realism generally, and the star-crossed lover thing just bores me now, so the two combined wouldn’t be my idea of a pleasant reading experience at all. Hilarius review though, nice to start the day with a good laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I fear magical realism always brings out my inner cynic! 10 minutes has touches of magical realism too, but only touches and done very lightly so that they didn’t “trigger” me the way butterflies that read gravestones do… 😉 But the real difference is in the characterisation – I still think of the characters in 10 Minutes as friends, whereas the characters in this one never came to life for me.

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  5. Oh, my, FictionFan! That is a disappointment, especially considering how much you enjoyed 10 Minutes….. It does make me wonder how two such different books were written by the same author. I’ve had that happen to me, too, and it is always surprising. But at any rate, looking over your review, I’m pretty sure I’m going to give this one a miss…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Real chalk and cheese, these two. I think the major difference is that in 10 Minutes it’s all about the characters, whereas in this one it’s all about an event in history, and the characters never really came to life for me. Sometimes I wish authors would write an essay or a history rather than trying to incorporate an event they clearly feel strongly about into a novel. A novel needs a bit of distance, maybe, to give it perspective?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. FF muses: in real life, butterflies don’t read or talk to trees, and trees don’t think big philosophical thoughts and then write them in a book. When you’re trying to persuade your reader to believe in talking butterflies, best to leave real life out of the picture. 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

    Lately, I have been finding that a book written with any sort of agenda as the primary focus and the storytelling comes second usually falls flat–at least for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha – I may have sounded a little bitter there! 😉

      Yes, I think that was the real problem here. She clearly felt strongly about the war – fair enough, but in a novel it’s all about the characters and the story, rather than the background event.

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  7. I was tempted to request this myself when I saw it on NetGalley, but decided against it – I think that was probably the right decision, especially as I’m not really a magical realism fan!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The magical realism element of her last one, 10 Minutes, was so light and slight that I really wasn’t expecting the heavy-handed approach this time of talking trees and insects and so on. Had I known I’d have avoided it too, since magical realism usually brings out my inner cynic!

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  8. Oh my! I’m trying to think of an occasion where an author flew so high in one book and sunk so low in the next. I’m stumped. Especially with an author of the calibre of Shafak. What a disappointment for you, FF. (And one less to add to the tbr for me! 😄 )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grapes of Wrath – East of Eden! 😉 This was definitely a disappointment to me although lots of people are loving it. I fear when there’s as much magical realism as this in a book, my inner cynic gets very fed up!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. So sorry this one didn’t deliver on your anticipation. I have to carefully caretake my sadness consumption these days, so I won’t be giving this one a try. No matter – I’ve got plenty of books on my TBR list. (About 5 years worth, ha ha!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oddly enough, because this felt so manipulative it didn’t make me sad at all – it just irritated me. Which is so different from her last one, which I found very emotional, though uplifting. Haha, always happy to keep books off people’s TBRs… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I knew the moment the tree announced it was in love that I was going to have issues! 😉 It felt so different to 10 Minutes – I still think of the characters in that one as friends, whereas the characters in this never came to life for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I can think of one positive: you trudged through it, and I don’t have to!! FF, I always enjoy your reviews when you don’t like the book, and this is no exception. Talking trees? In an adults’ book?? Argh!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As I write mostly for children, I am quite familiar with writing from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or other living things. And as the author of a book that will be published in spring 2023, personifying dust, I know that the writer must be quite careful to get the voice right so that it works. This book doesn’t sound like the author was successful in their goal, sadly…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m frightened this might sound patronising and I don’t mean it too, but somehow I feel that humanising inanimate objects is more suited to children’s books than books for adults, because children on the whole are less cynical and more imaginative. Than this adult anyway! I can cope with talking trees in the likes of The Lord of the Rings, because the whole thing is set in a fantasy world – it’s the mix of fantasy and reality that doesn’t work for me. I feel the words magical and realism should never be used in the same sentence… or book! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • LOL, yes, children are much more open to flights of fancy in form. I don’t find it patronizing, just the opposite in fact. I also think that children’s writers are more accepting of magical realism, too….although many adults who are not children’s writers love books by Gabrial Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Salman Rushdie that contain elements of magical realism. So whether it works for a reader most likely depends on how it’s presented?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m fairly sure readers who enjoy all-out fantasy probably enjoy a touch of magical realism in stories, but those of us who prefer the realism aspect probably struggle with it. I can cope if it’s subtle and the story doesn’t depend on it too much, but when an author uses magic to give a kind of mystical ending it always makes me want to throw the book at the wall!

          Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m sorry to hear this was such a disappointment especially after reading a book you thought so highly of. I’ll still try it in spite of seeing all the mixed reactions to the book because now I’m even more curious about it!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh dear. I have this plus a few others by her on my tbr pile. I think I’ll start with the earlier ones after reading this & all the comments.
    I just found out it is the next Reese book as well, which put off. I don’t usually get on with her choices at all, even though many others do. So what do I know 🤷🏼‍♀️

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is a shame. I really enjoyed “10 Minutes” and hoped this would be just as good. Oh well, you’ve saved me adding another to my TBR!

    I emailed my Classics list to the address given on the site and also filled in the signup form there. I know it said to be patient since they all have “real” lives, but at what point should I contact them again? (It’s only been a week)

    Liked by 1 person

    • This one felt so different to 10 Minutes, and not in a good way! 😦

      Hmm, I don’t know. They’re usually very quick at adding reviews but I believe they split the work up so that it’s probably somebody different who adds new members. In a sense it doesn’t matter, since you can still link reviews even if your name isn’t on the members’ list (I think), but I’d maybe give it a month and then send a reminder. I don’t like to pressure them too much because it’s all a lot of work for them and they’re just bloggers like the rest of us. But I have sent reminders in the past if a review has gone astray.

      Liked by 1 person

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