About the Book
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.
Format: Hardcover (400 pages) Publisher: Manilla Press
Publication date: 8th July 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
Find Songbirds on Goodreads
Disclosure: If you buy a book via the above link, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops
I’ve not read the author’s previous novel, the best-selling The Beekeeper of Aleppo, but having finished Songbirds I can say it is definitely going to be added to my wishlist, along with her first novel, A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible.
Set in Cyprus, in Songbirds the author paints a picture of an island divided both physically, along the so-called Green Line, and socially, with the employment of maids – usually foreign women – commonplace amongst the middle classes, women like Petra in fact.
Following Nisha’s unexplained disappearance and the reluctance of the police to get involved, Petra’s search for information leads her to speak to other foreign domestic workers who may have known Nisha and who perhaps may hold some clue to her whereabouts. In the process, Petra is forced to confront the fact that these women were largely invisible to her before. (In a clever touch, Petra is an optician who helps others to see better.) Petra hears their often shocking stories of abuse, mistreatment and exploitation.
Indeed, even in the small neighbourhood around Petra’s house – in Mr Yiakoumi’s antique shop, in Theo’s Greek restaurant or Maria’s bar – young women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Nepal are working long hours cleaning, preparing and serving food, or carrying out other domestic duties. And although Petra might think herself a generous employer in comparison to some, she still expects Nisha to work from 6am to 7pm six days a week, with a two-hour break in the afternoon, even stipulating that, when not working in the evening, Nisha rest in her room to ensure she is fresh to resume her duties the next day.
I liked the way the author explored the differences and similarities between Petra and Nisha. On the surface, the two women share similar experiences; they are both widows with young children. But Petra is financially secure and runs her own business whereas Nisha has been forced to leave her homeland to seek work as a maid, at the beck and call of others. Another difference is that Petra finds it hard to form the same effortless bond with her daughter, Aliki, that Nisha does. This is despite the fact that Aliki is close at hand for Petra yet Nisha’s daughter, Kumari, is faraway in Sri Lanka and Nisha can communicate with her only in brief video calls.
Yiannis’ involvement in the lucrative but illegal poaching of migrating songbirds – from which activity he admits he ‘makes a killing’ – neatly mirrors the ‘migration’ of foreign workers, such as Nisha, to Cyprus in search of work that will bring them greater financial reward than they could find in their own country. And in another deft connection, the reader is reminded of Cyprus’s history of repeated occupation and colonisation by other nations.
Alongside Yiannis and Petra’s search for Nisha are brief interludes set beside a lake coloured red due to copper extraction. The scenes have an otherworldly feel to them but are based on a real place, Mitsero. I found the contrast between the lush natural landscape and the signs of previous human activity that have polluted the area quite unsettling. The significance of these sections became more apparent as the book progressed towards an ending I wasn’t quite expecting.
I was fortunate enough to hear Christy talk about the book in an online event organized by Wokingham Borough Libraries on 13th July 2021. Christy revealed the inspiration for the book was reading about the real-life disappearance of several women and children in Cyprus whom the police refused to search for because they were ‘foreign’. Also, that the character of Nisha was based on a maid working in the house of relatives in Cyprus whom Christy had got to know during stays there over the years.
As well as answering questions from event host Stephanie Woods from Wokingham Borough Libraries and audience members, those attending were treated to a short reading by Christy from Songbirds. (For those who possess a copy, this was the first section of Chapter 6.) She also gave us a brief hint about what the subject of her next book might be. (Sorry, not telling!)
I really enjoyed the beautiful writing in Songbirds and the insight it gave into issues I had not thought about before. Incidentally, during the online event Christy said that, unlike some other authors, she enjoys reading reviews of her books, firstly because she learns much from readers’ responses to her writing, and secondly because it feels like a way to make an emotional connection between herself and her readers. I very much hope Christy enjoys reading this review.
About the Author
Brought up in London, Christy Lefteri is the daughter of Cypriot refugees. She holds a PhD in creative writing, and teaches creative writing at Brunel University. Her previous novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, is an international bestseller, selling a million copies worldwide. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)