Audiobook review – “Songbirds” by Christy Lefteri

I loved The Beekeeper of Aleppo and so I was keen to get hold of this book when it was published in July of this year. It is Christy Lefteri’s third novel (her first A Watermelon, A Fish and A Bible, was published in 2010, nine years before The Beekeeper of Aleppo became an international best seller and shot her to fame) and covers similar territory – the plight of immigrants from war-torn or developing countries seeking to make a better life in what we like to term ‘the West’.

Nisha is a young Sri Lankan woman whose husband was killed in a mining accident when their daughter was a baby. Widowed and penniless she decided to leave her home country, leaving her young daughter in the care of her mother, to seek employment in Europe where she hopes the higher wages will enable her to support both herself and her family and put money aside for her daughter’s education. She takes a position as a maid to a woman in Cyprus. Petra, Nisha’s employer, is also widowed with a young child, but there the similarity ends. Petra is a professional woman, European, an optometrist with her own business, and her husband died of cancer. She has a large and comfortable home and rents out the apartment above her own to Yiannis. When Petra first employs Nisha she is a broken woman, unable to find a way out of her grief. Nisha becomes a second mother to the child Aliki, taking care of most of her practical needs as well as providing that particularly maternal form of nurturing that her own mother simply cannot give her.

None of the above forms part of the plot of the book, we learn this through reflective passages because Nisha appears only briefly at the start of the novel; she accompanies Petra and Aliki on a day trip to the Troodos mountains one Sunday (what should be Nisha’s one day off in the week), but late that evening she vanishes. Petra reports her disappearance to the police, but they have no interest – such practices are common among these kinds of women, Petra is told, they leave for a better offer in the north of the island. Petra does not believe this not least because Nisha has left behind her most treasured possessions including her passport and a necklace containing a lock of her daughter’s hair. Petra also cannot believe that Nisha would leave Aliki, the child she has loved as if she were her own, without even a goodbye.

As she continues to search ever more desperately for Nisha, Petra makes unexpected connections with her neighbours, their maids, and also Yiannis, her tenant upstairs who she realises she has barely spoken to and knows nothing about. We learn before Petra does that Yiannis was Nisha’s lover, a relationship they were forced to keep secret well knowing that it could jeopardise Nisha’s job. Such women of servitude have almost every aspect of their lives controlled by the employers on whom they depend so wholly. The book drops heavy hints about how close this is to enslavement. Yiannis also has his secrets; he is a poacher, capturing songbirds from the countryside, which he then plucks and pickles for sale to unscrupulous restaurants. The songbirds are a forbidden delicacy and the practice is highly illegal. But Yiannis is himself also enslaved; like a drugs mule he is merely a cog in a bigger machine and his more senior accomplice skims off most of the proceeds while Yiannis barely survives, knowing also that he cannot leave the work or else his own life would be in danger because he knows too much.

Petra and Yiannis are searching separately for Nisha and each is on their own journey, not only to find her, but in doing so they also reflect on their own part in her disappearance. Each is taken to dark places, both literally, as they encounter underworlds that were previously not fully known to them, but also figuratively as they are forced to question whether they gave Nisha the respect and attention she had a right to expect and may therefore have some culpability.

I found the book gripping, and the story interesting. Its subject-matter is at times uncomfortable; most of us probably think that we have nothing to do with this kind of discrimination and injustice, but the reader, like Petra and Yiannis, is forced to confront the fact that we are all part of the bigger system that perpetuates it. It is less subtle than The Beekeeper of Aleppo in making its ‘campaign’ points. Some of the characters are merely caricatures of the system (such as the indifferent police detective) or mouthpieces for the points the author wants to make, like Tony the agency owner who finds jobs for many of the south-east Asian migrants, but who is also very protective of them.

I listened to the book on audio and found the narration excellent with very good performances all round. Petra and Yiannis are voiced by two different actors, which I liked, and Art Malik makes another appearance for this author reading the third-person chapters.

Highly recommended.

Source: The International Labour Organization

Audiobook review – “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri

I’m on an audiobook roll; earlier this week I posted about The Last Protector, the fourth in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett series, all of which I have listened on on audio and all of which I have loved. Today I am, by coincidence, reviewing another audiobook, The Beekeeper of Aleppo. I had known about this one for some time and wanted to read it, then it came up as a suggestion from one of my fellow Book Club members. It is read by Art Malik, whose voice is sublime, absolutely perfect for this story, so it was an easy choice to turn to the audiobook.

Although it is a work of fiction the author writes in her afterword about her time spent working with refugees fleeing the war in Syria, and that the book represents an amalgam of various peoples’ experiences. Although it is a tragic and heartbreaking story, even a superficial awareness of what has been happening in Syria for almost ten years now will render it entirely believable. Aleppo was particularly badly affected by the civil war in Syria; over 30,000 people are said to have been killed between 2012-16, when fighting there was at its most intense. A further half a million people were displaced and much of the city was left in ruins.

The story is narrated by Nuri, a beekeeper who lives a peaceful life in Aleppo with his wife Afra, an artist, and their young son Sami. Nuri runs his successful beekeeping business with his partner Mustafa, the more charismatic of the two men.

[Slight spoiler alert in the next paragraph]

Nuri and Afra are devoted to their homeland, but they watch in despair as their city is torn apart and they witness horrific acts in the increasingly vicious civil war. Their turmoil reaches a climax when their young son is killed by a mortar. Mustafa decides to flee Syria, determined to head for the United Kingdom, and encourages Nuri and Afra to do the same. Nuri is persuaded, but Afra cannot find it within her to leave. Deeply traumatised by her son’s death she does not want to, as she sees it, leave him behind. As events spiral out of their control and the gulf between them, caused by their grief, seems impossibly large, Nuri finds that his wife, the artist, has become blind.

Nuri persuades, virtually forces, Afra to leave Syria; presenting her with a stark choice – it is that or death. Afra would rather die, but Nuri has to nurture the last tiny remaining bit of the human survival instinct that he has, for both of them. What follows is an account of the couple’s journey from Syria, across Europe and finally to England. They spend many weeks in Athens, sleeping in a public park with many others in a similar position, dependent on the kindness of strangers, volunteers and NGO workers to bring them food. They face many dangers, their lives are at risk on many occasions and they are cruelly robbed and cheated by criminals and gangsters who seek to profit from the plight of desperate people. As a reader you know this story is not fantastical. It is heartbreaking to see how these cultured, educated gentle people are brutalised, dehumanised and forced into danger and a level of criminality themselves by their situation.

This is not an easy read. It is heart-wrenching throughout and the ending is both dramatic and surprising. I would also say the ending is clever, but that seems a rather inappropriate word to apply to a story such as this. For an insight into what it is like to be a refugee, an outsider, this book is superb.

I recommend this book highly.

The book has won international acclaim, but sadly it does not seem to have changed the world’s attitude to refugees. Perhaps that is too much to ask when almost every country in the world is now battling a global pandemic. But just as we can’t let Covid cause us to forget the many other problems and causes of suffering in our own society (cancer, domestic violence, homelessness are not on hold), neither can we let ourselves forget the unimaginable plight of refugees across the globe. UNHCR estimates that around 1% of the world’s population, about 80 million people, are currently displaced. Of these, 40%, about 32 million, are children.