A careful, considered, tragic page-turner which captures the refugee crisis by going beyond the headlines.
In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron once referred to a ‘swarm’ of migrants in Calais, desperate to cross the channel by any means necessary. This caused a media shit-storm in the UK for its dehumanising of desperate human beings. I wonder if this had any impact on Lefteri’s decision to make bees one of the main threads of this beautiful book. An ironic nod, maybe?
My possibly completely wide-of-the-mark musings aside, I would recommend anyone reading this book. Absolutely anyone. It’s not perfect, which is why it doesn’t get five stars from me, but it goes a long way towards crafting a nuanced and human story out of something which we mainly only recognise from news clips beamed into our comfortable, centrally-heated homes with hot running water and no immediate threat of a shell coming through the roof. Lefteri may not be Syrian or Afghan herself, but she has had experience in working with refugees in Greece, and acknowledges the influence that listening to their stories has had on her crafting of this novel.
This novel was necessary. It’s so easy to feel detached from human suffering, to see refugees as ‘other’, to feel fear, to see them as a threat to ‘Western’ culture (whatever that is). When it’s reduced to soundbites and sovereignty, numbers and political wrangling over how many to let in, how much to give them, how much of a ‘danger’ they are to the fabric of society, it’s much more comfortable to think of refugees as some kind of amorphous, threatening mass pushing at the edges of good ole’ Blighty.
But these are people. People who have suffered enough for ten lifetimes. People who have seen their children die in front of them, their homes destroyed, their livelihoods ruined. People who have fled West hoping to build a better life for themselves and to protect the people they love most, in the hope of living in peace. Do you think that anyone would risk crossing from Turkey to Lesbos in an overloaded dinghy across the open ocean with no lifejackets if this were not life or death?
And let’s leave off the ‘economic migrants’ theory, said with a sneer over a pint of John Smith’s. Anyone who moves to another country is an economic migrant. Nobody willingly moves country without thinking they might be better off over there, they might be happier or have a higher standard of living or better quality of life. Why does it only become a negative when the person moving (or fleeing) their country is not white or Christian? Oh yeah, I think we all know why.
Anyway, this was a necessary book. I wish all those who see refugees as a vague, dark threat to Britishness would read this book. I wish they would try to make that mental leap of understanding. The protagonists of this novel, Nuri and Afra, are deep and nuanced. They have hidden strengths and surprising weaknesses. They love each other but their love is imperfect. After months and months of hardship, they have reached England and are in temporary accommodation, a B&B on the coast. They are stuck in limbo, anxiously waiting for their application for asylum to be approved. Both are indelibly scarred from their experience of the war in Syria.
This book is beautifully written, but almost too simple in places. It was a page-turner. I read it in under three days. It didn’t make me cry, although almost everyone I know who has read it had cried whilst reading it. The last book or film I cried at was Marley and Me. Animals dying still hits me ten times harder than humans.