Postal Reading group
November 2022
Notes on the book Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

Songbirds by Christy Lefteri follows their previous book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo which I remember reading some time ago. My initial reaction was that this was going to be a very similar book. However, it soon became clear that these are two very different books, the former set in war torn Syria, the latter in Cyprus; one looking at the attempt of refugees to escape a country and livlihoods which have been destroyed, and the other at refugees settled in domestic work.

The story of the present book, Songbirds, is that of Nisha, working as a nanny and maid for Petra. When Nisha diasppears, we follow the attempts of Petra and Yiannis to find her, interest the police in her case, and those of other similar domestic workers. Alongside this, we also follow Yiannis’ desire to leave his work as a poacher, find a new job, and marry Nisha. Similarly this also covers Petra's own story and that of her daughter Aliki.

Despite the obvious differences, it is important to emphasise that there are also considerable similarities with the Beekeeper of Aleppo. Primarily, both are about the plight of refugees, albeit in different countries and circumstances. While the Beekeeper of Aleppo focuses on refugees fleeing a country and their lives torn apart by war, and Songbirds looks at so called ‘economic migrants’, it is difficult to see a fundamental difference between the two, a point made by by author in their notes at the back of the book. Although the subtle differences between the two categories seem to have acquired a significance in the current debate, at least as far as some Conservative MPs are concerned, being unable to feed your family would seem to be an equally compelling reason to fleeing a war zone for anyone contemplating leaving their home country. Ultimately both categories are people with rights and needs, and both categories have been failed by economics and politics.

The differences between the two books makes it difficult to compare the reception offered to refugees in Europe and Cyrpus, but any suggestion that Nisha in Songbirds is any more welcome, despite her willingness to work long hours in domestic service, is surely unfounded. The police refused to investigate her disappearance, clearly expecting “forign workers” to move on regularly, almost as the mood takes them. Likewise, economies in Western Europe, Britain included, are equally reliant on migrant labour to perform low-paid work, as the current post Brexit shortages in areas like the hospitality sector show. To this extent, this book also highlights the problems caused by our desire for cheap labour. Regardless of any individual views on migration, the best way of reducing it has to be economic reforms which reduce the requirement for cheap labour, while spreading the proceeds of economic growth more fairly around the globe.

Beyond the subject matter, I found the writing style of the present book also showed similarity with the Beekeeper of Aleppo. Both were well written and generally easy to read. However, I did feel that the plot was weak and slow moving at times, although the alternate chapters narrated by Yiannis and Petra did help to move the book along. While some of the descriptions were good, at other times the book seemed overly descriptive, particularly when dealing with the poaching of the songbirds. In addition to examining some of the issues facing migrants, the book also includes elements of mystery around Nisha and the other missing girls. Although not without interest, this is very much the weaker aspect of the book. The book also lacked the element of suspense that I would normally expect from a good mystery. I felt sure that Nisha would be found dead, even while hoping that I was wrong.

The third and final theme in Songbirds is that of those whom Nisha left behind, principally the stories of Petra, Aliki and Yiannis. We learn how Petra hired Nisha to relieve herself of responsibility for the housekeeping, and even for looking after her own daughter. It is only once Nisha disappears that Petra realises how much she had taken her for granted. This is the story of Aliki, of her remote relationship with her own mother and the closer bond she enjoyed with Nisha. Finally, this is the Story of Yiannis, of his poaching and how, ulitmately, that would come between him and Nisha.

In conclusion, I found this to be a well written and thoughtful book, and a worthy successor to the Beekeeper of Aleppo. It highlights the plight of migrant workers, based on a true story, while there is also another story about how we view those workers, and an economy founded on cheap labour. Although parts of the book are overly descriptive, and the plot is sometimes a little weak, this is nevertheless well worth reading and a good choice for this group.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler