With Valentine’s Day just behind us, what better time to talk about books on love? I’ll be discussing Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees (2021), the first romance book I’ve read in a while that genuinely moved me. This wise and lyrical novel provides a portrait of love in so many phases, from first love to the grief of lost love. I suggest you add it to your TBR* imminently (and get yourself a box of tissues).

Romance books and me

I should preface all of this by saying I’m not typically a romance book fan. It’s not that I don’t love a good ship*, but I usually prefer this to take the form of a sub-plot rather than the main event. Perhaps this is because I sometimes feel that romance books promote an all-or-nothing approach to love; the protagonist becomes obsessed with their love interest, and suddenly their friends or family no longer matter (yes, Bella Swan, I’m looking at you). Of course, romantic relationships can be an important part of life – but not the only part. Other relationships might be just as fulfilling, or, conversely, just as painful. So my ideal book on love would explore not only romantic, but also platonic, familial, and self-love. Enter Elif Shafak with The Island of Missing Trees.

Romeo and Juliet, reimagined?

It’s 1974 and Defne and Kostas are falling in love. Only it’s not quite that simple. Defne is a Turkish Muslim, Kostas a Greek Christian; this makes them star-crossed lovers in a divided Cyprus on the brink of war. So the pair must not only navigate the trials of first love, but also a tense political climate in which all the odds are stacked against them. To cover their tracks, they meet clandestinely at a pub called The Happy Fig, run by two sympathetic men whose own tragic love story plays out behind the scenes. But time will tear Defne and Kostas apart, as the latter lover emigrates to the UK. Many years later, he returns, in search of both the homeland and the love he lost.

That isn’t all, though. The novel is multi-layered, operating on several timelines. The love between the young Defne and Kostas unfolds alongside the story of Ada, a 16-year-old girl living in 2010s London. Her father is a botanist who lovingly protects a cutting from a fig tree. Her mother has recently died after a battle with mental illness and substance abuse. Their names are Kostas and Defne. Under the weight of grief and generational pain, Ada struggles to cope. The situation is exacerbated when a video of her mental breakdown at school goes viral. But the reaction is not what Ada expects. Could the world finally be showing her love?

At the heart of the narrative, the fig tree itself recounts part of the story, imparting its wisdom. The tree crucially symbolises the roots which connect us to place and family, with Shafak dedicating the novel ‘to immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless, and to the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories.’

The myriad branches of love

The Island of Missing Trees is a tale about love against all odds. Yet, this love is not singular but plural, like the narrative voices of this polyphonic novel. Ultimately, Shafak provides us with tender images of both heterosexual and homosexual romantic love, familial love, the attachment we feel for the places we call home, and an appreciation for the natural world.

Jane Austen once wrote, ‘there are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.’ It’s a message which is just as true now as then, and which is exemplified in all its poignant effect in The Island of Missing Trees.

*TBR is the acronym of ‘to be read’, an expression used to indicate a reading list.

*A ‘ship’ is a term used to designate two fictional characters who you want to be a couple.