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