In short Christy Lefteri makes me cry and it’s worth it because with both books, I’ve come away with a better understanding of the world, a book that can do that is beyond special.
Songbirds is very special.
Songbirds is a book I want everyone to read and then think about the choices that people in some of the poorest countries in the world have to make. I say choices, there isn’t a whole lot of choice involved when it is the only option available.
Songbirds shines a light on domestic workers in Cyprus, the inspiration comes from Lefteri’s own experiences and interactions with domestic workers on the island. Songbirds is Nisha’s story, told through the eyes of Petra and Yiannis.
From the back
She walks unseen through our world.
Cares for our children, cleans our homes.
She has a story to tell.
Will you listen?
Nisha has crossed oceans to give her child a future. By day she cares for Petra’s daughter; at night she mothers her own little girl by the light of a phone.
Nisha’s lover, Yiannis, is a poacher, hunting the tiny songbirds on their way to Africa each winter. His dreams of a new life, and of marrying Nisha, are shattered when she vanishes.
No one cares about the disappearance of a domestic worker, except Petra and Yiannis. As they set out to search for her, they realise how little they know about Nisha. What they uncover will change them all.
When I reviewed the Beekeeper of Aleppo last year, I touched on the depressing discourse around refugees fleeing war torn countries. This novel opened my eyes to the depressing discourse and prejudice that surrounds certain economic migrants. We’re still fed the idea, and assume that people leave their homes, families, and friends to “milk another country’s benefits system”.
It’s a xenophobic view, that image only applies to certain nationalities. I once knew a man who came to the UK from New Zealand to work in radio for a few years, he was welcomed with open arms, no one batted an eyelid, no one (to my knowledge) questioned his motivations for being here or told him to “go home” or accused him of “stealing our jobs”; I’d often wondered what his experience would have been like had he been perceived to be “more foreign”, I’d put money on it being a different experience.
We still lack that understanding of why someone would cross oceans to work in another country, we don’t want to understand that in some cases, we don’t don’t want to consider a range of complex motivations, we don’t want to have to imagine ourselves feeling like there is no other choice than to leave to make a living and provide for our children; that is the reality for some people and this novel opened my eyes to that.
Nisha is from Sri Lanka, when her husband is killed in mining accident shortly after the birth of her daughter, it’s down to her and her alone to bring the money in to feed her, her daughter, and her mother. She works every hour god sends and it is never enough, she makes a huge sacrifice, she signs up to an agency and finds herself in Cyprus working for Petra.
The story takes place after Nisha has gone missing. Petra realises she’s never considered Nisha’s life and circumstances; she’s never taken the time to find out about the woman who’s been working for her as a maid for 9 years; the woman who has by and large raised her daughter.
Petra’s search for Nisha leads her to properly look for the first time at the lives of domestic workers in her community, how they’ve been ignored, their voices unheard. Nisha herself isn’t heard until the very end, that’s the only time she gets to tell her story, the truth rather than the narrative that has been laid out for her by others.
Yiannis, Nisha’s lover, has lost his job as a banker following the 2008 economic crash. He now makes a living as a poacher, capturing and killing the Songbrids migrating through Cyprus. I loved the imagery of Yiannis’ “job” running alongside the story of Nisha – the silencing of the songbirds and the silencing of the domestic workers, the message wasn’t lost on me.
This book has a lot to say about how we treat each other. When Nisha disappears, the police refuse to help Petra saying, “she’ll have run away to make more money”, the message Petra’s given over and over again is “these women are selfish, they do not care about their families”, something Petra doesn’t believe, yet it’s still the first time she’s really seen and heard the domestic maids in her community.
As with The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Lefteri ends Songbirds with a letter to the reader, it’s a letter that moved and enraged me in equal measure (I don’t want to give anything away but if you do pick up this book, read the letter). It tells the story behind Songbirds, it’s a story that should be more shocking than it is (I work in news my shock factor is very high) and one that should have hit the headlines.
I hope this book will help others understand that nothing is black and white, there are no easy choices but mainly I hope it’ll encourage people to look more closely at the world and people around them, I hope it’ll help break down racism and prejudice.
I loved this novel (I hope that’s clear), it’s an important story and very powerful, it’ll stay with me for a long time.
I do hope you will read and if you have would love to hear from you.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm