Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd May 2019 from Bonnier Zaffre
In the midst of war, he found love
In the midst of darkness, he found courage
In the midst of tragedy, he found hope
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
What will you find from his story?
Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape.
As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.
Gosh this is a harsh but beautiful book. Beautifully written, certainly. It’s the story of Nuri, a beekeeper and his family. Nuri and his cousin Mustafa are beekeepers who make and sell a range of goods from their honey across Aleppo. Nuri loves those bees; he watches them closely until he understands them and learns their behaviour; understands what they are capable of.
He and Afra, his artist wife, live in Aleppo with their son, Sami. They are not well off, but their life is good and they love living in Aleppo. But difficult times are coming. Mustafa sees this and sends his wife and daughter away to England. He himself plans to follow with his son as soon as he can sort out the business.
Nuri and Afra love Aleppo and despite Mustafa’s urgings, decide to stay in Aleppo. But as war comes ever closer to the city, an act of vandalism takes their livelihood away. At the same time, Mustafa has to flee the country in fear for his life, leaving Nuri and Afra to decide what to do. Alas, their indecision is their undoing and soon they too have no choice but to flee.
With lyrical prose and using a literary device which at first I thought would annoy me, but which in fact acts as a clever bridge between one time period or place and another, Lefteri shows us the physical and emotional journey of this couple as they try to make their way towards England to join Mustafa.
The story alternates between their arrival in England and the ‘processing’ they have to go through to be classified as refugees with asylum status, interspersed with flashbacks to their journey from Syria through Turkey and Greece.
Broken, shattered physically and emotionally, Nuri is incapable of coping with everything he and Afra experience and their relationship becomes another casualty of the war they are fleeing from. In some ways I’d have loved to have heard more of Afra’s inner thoughts. For her, I think this whole journey was worse than for Nuri and his emotional immaturity in the face of their losses sometimes feels very cruel indeed, which helps to make this deeply moving story feel rooted in reality.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is an emotional, sometimes harrowing read and highlights only too well why people have to leave their homelands and become stateless refugees. The journey of Afra and Nuria is a common one, though they are lucky in so far as they have some money and they are able to survive. Not everyone is nearly so fortunate.
Even so, recognising that there do have to be checks and safeguards, it is difficult to acknowledge the sheer difficulty of their experience of coming to England and to understand what they have to go through in order to have the possibility of feeling safe.
The story of bees is nicely woven throughout the novel. They are a symbol of hope; the possibility of a future.
Verdict: Ultimately hopeful, this is a moving and beautifully written story that highlights the personal stories behind the headlines. Highly recommended.
Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees and was brought up in London. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University. The Beekeeper of Aleppo was born out of her time working as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens.