Source: Review copy
Publication: 8 July 2021 from Manilla Press
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
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.
If you have read The Beekeeper of Aleppo, you will already know that Christi Lefteri is a consummate storyteller with a passionate interest in migrants and refugees and their stories.
The Beekeeeper was a story about refugees forced to leave their homes as a result of war. Songbirds is also about refugees forced to travel from their homes, but these are economic migrants. Their reasons are just as urgent, but the driver is economic. This is the story of Nisha, a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Cyprus who looks after someone else’s child all day, whilst at night she reaches out to her own child through technology;never able to touch or hug her.
When one day she simply disappears, those few who thought they knew her are left wondering if they knew anything at all.
Songbirds is narrated by Petra, Nisha’s employer in Cyprus and by Yiannis, a man who has come to care deeply for Nisha but whose own economic circumstances have led him into an illegal money making enterprise – trapping delicate songbirds to sell as food on the black market.
Beautifully written, Songbirds lays out some of the reasons people – often women with young children – leave their families, and travel thousands of miles in search of work. This is not a new story – we know it has been happening for years – but what Lefteri does is to let these invisible women be seen and to tell some of their stories.
Nisha has made a huge sacrifice leaving her daughter behind in Sri Lanka and coming to Cyprus for work. Working for Petra and caring for Petra’s daughter, Aliki, in a way her mother cannot, Nisha misses her own daughter, Kumari, more than ever.
Petra is emotionally distanced from everyone. Nisha is a worker, nothing more, but it’s such an inconvenience that she has disappeared. Who will look after her daughter now? As she and Yiannis search for her, it does not take them long to realise that the authorities could not give a toss about Nisha. Such workers are transient, they say. Migrants come and go in their thousands – why would they spend time looking for them when they leave?
Lefteri lays bare the casual institutional racism against such workers; the way in which they are treated as no more than bonded slaves and through Nisha’s story, shows us some of the truly awful traps and exploitative situations that women can be thrown into. Nisha’s job with Petra came through an employment agency. Except that agency, specialising in domestic workers from elsewhere, is in reality nothing more than a way to make money from Nisha while enslaving her to them for years to come.
Lefteri’s Songbirds gives us three people who are each captives in some way. Petra is emotionally frozen after losing her husband. Yiannis is caught in his black market activity and can’t get out. And Nisha has been no more or less than a bonded servant for the last nine years. Though Petra has not been cruel to her, she knows nothing at all about the woman who has lived in her house and cared for her daughter for the last 9 years.
Using the metaphor of beautiful songbirds, Lefteri’s lyrical and delicate prose emotively draws the comparison with Nisha. And even as you feel tremendous revulsion and sorrow for the treatment of these birds, so at the same time you pull yourself up and see the comparison with the inhuman treatment of migrant women. Lefteri has created Nisha’s story based on real disappearances of domestic workers in Cyprus and we should not forget that as we get caught up in her poignant and emotional story.
Verdict: Songbirds will both move and anger you. By leaving Nisha’s own voice until the end of this novel, Lefteri cleverly leaves the most important voice for last. Yet, for all that Songbirds is a story about loss, grief and cruelty, in the end Christy Lefteri has delivered a beautiful book that speaks to hope and how the ties of love and the bonds of friendship can prevail in the face of incredible adversity.
Brought up in London, Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University. Her first book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo was born out of her time working as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens.