Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2021

Songbirds, by Christy Lefteri

Songbirds, by Christy Lefteri, is every bit as rewarding to read as her debut novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo.  This is the blurb:

‘It began with a crunch of leaves and earth. So early, so cold, the branches shone with ice. I’d returned to collect the songbirds. They are worth more than their weight in gold.’

Yiannis is a poacher, trapping the tiny protected songbirds that stop in Cyprus as they migrate each year from Africa to Europe, and selling them on the black market. He dreams of finding a new way of life, and of marrying Nisha, who works for Petra and her daughter Aliki. Nisha is raising Aliki, mothering her own child Kumari back in Sri Lanka by the screen of a phone.

When Nisha disappears, Yiannis is convinced he is responsible, paralysed by heartbreak and fear. Petra is forced to care for her child again, and when little Aliki insists that they find Nisha, she begins to see that Nisha hasn’t simply run away, and that no one else will bother to look for her.

With infinite tenderness and skill, Christy Lefteri has crafted a powerful story about the unseen who walk among us, cleaning our homes and caring for our children – what it is to migrate in search of freedom, only to find yourself trapped. Songbirds is a triumphant exploration of loss, the strength of the human spirit and the unbreakable bonds of courage, and of love.

In this meticulously crafted story, the narratives of Petra and Yiannis alternate, each adding to the fragments of information about this mysterious disappearance, each compromised to some extent by the lack of trust they have in each other. From time to time there is a brief intrusion of a narrative that seems to have nothing to do with Nisha’s story, until late in the book when the reader can ‘join the dots’.

Both Petra and Yiannis are flawed characters, reprehensible in some ways.  Yiannis’s poaching is sordid and cruel, entirely consistent with his trade before he lost everything in the GFC. Petra’s neglect of the people in her life, especially her daughter Aliki, is monstrous, not adequately explained by her bereavement years before.  Both these characters have back stories that invite judgement, as does the Greek Cypriot community in which they live, all of them exploiting so-called guest workers, all of whom are trapped in debt by the system that lures them from poverty into enslavement.

Lefteri deftly traces a credible path to redemption.  Petra, who depends on Nisha’s long hours of labour without ever knowing anything about her as a person, and Yiannis, who loves her without ever understanding the insurmountable difficulties of Nisha’s life, negotiate bureaucratic and community indifference and considerable danger in their quest to find her.  The author’s gift for characterisation realises a superb cast of personalities, not the least of which is the ancient Mrs Hadjikyriacou, who gets a new lease on life when she looks after Aliki for Petra, and brings laughter back into the child’s life.

What I really like about Lefteri’s novels is that she shines a light on important social issues that plague our global world.  She achieves this by personalising the issue in unputdownable narratives with unforgettable characters.

Highly recommended.

Author: Christy Lefteri
Title: Songbirds
Cover design by Emma Rogers
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781786580825, pbk., 365 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Responses

  1. Another book on my list!

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  2. Yesssss!

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  3. This sounds a great read. I’ve not read her debut either, but I’ll look out for this author now, thanks Lisa!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this your kind of book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sounds like a heartbreaking novel. The world economy protects those who are wealthy.

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        • True. But there are signs of reform. Western economies are banding together to ensure that mega corporations pay proper tax. It’s a small step but it’s a start.

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  4. The Beekeeper of Aleppo did very well for us at the bookshop – not only in paperback, but on its initial release in h/b too. I’m hoping that this new one will follow a similar path. It certainly sounds very immersive and strong on characterisation.

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    • I think there is a real thirst for this kind of meaningful book.

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