The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – Book Review

Title: The Island of Missing Trees (review copy)

Author: Elif Shafak

Genre/Themes: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, War, Family Dynamics

Blurb from Goodreads

Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic, chili peppers and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness to their hushed, happy meetings and eventually, to their silent, surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns. He is a botanist looking for native species, but really, he’s searching for lost love.

Years later, a Ficus carica grows in the back garden of a house in London where Ada Kazantzakis lives. This tree is her only connection to an island she has never visited – her only connection to her family’s troubled history and her complex identity as she seeks to untangle years of secrets to find her place in the world.

My Review

I’m going to be very much the outlier with how I feel about The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak as I just didn’t enjoy it all that much. But I’m clearly in the minority as this has received much critical praise most recently being shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Nevertheless for me the novel just didn’t work. I found the prose to be far too laden with metaphor; this overly stylised way of storytelling made the prose feel awkward and heavy. In addition the narrative was bogged down with almost an incessant need by Shafak to over-elaborate each tiny detail. This is certainly a novel that is heavy on the exposition which is something that hugely detracted from the emotional impact that a book with such an emotive subject should’ve had on me. It made the characters feel less than real; more akin to stereotypes rather than wholly realised characters. And also impacted the pace of the book as I kept waiting for the plot to truly get going but found it never did. I think the use of jumping back and forth between the multiple timelines actually went against the book in that nothing to come was a surprise as we’d either been told in flashback the details that the character of Ada (in the 2010’s) was learning about her parents’ past and the history of Cyprus.

However, the thing that really irked me about the book was the use of an omniscient narrator. If there’s one thing I can’t stand in fiction it’s an omniscient narrator. They invariably impart a smug tone to the novel as they just gradually reveal the plot in a piecemeal fashion… or at least that’s how it always feels to me. I felt similarly negatively about the incredibly popular The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

But what made this narrator even more irksome was that it was a tree.

I just…


I can appreciate magical realism every now and then, but I just couldn’t get on board with the idea of a tree telling me the story. It was a step too far for me to take.

It’s truly a shame that I found myself becoming bored by this book because the politics surrounding the division of Cyprus is a topic of great importance and one that I feel more people should be familiar with. But despite the depth of research and the interesting subject matter this book failed in its execution imo and sadly just wasn’t for me.

I much preferred Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and would recommend any reader interested in reading Shafak’s writing to start with that.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

  • Publication Date: 5th August 2021
  • Publisher: Viking

Other Works by Elif Shafak I’ve Reviewed

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