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Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Christy Lefteri’s own experiences of working as a volunteer with refugees in Athens inspired and inform her moving and thought-provoking novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

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.

Christy Lefteri centres her novel around one couple to relate this story of the Syrian refugee experience; there are friends of theirs and others we meet along the way, but this is essentially Nuri and Afra’s tale to tell. Which is, ultimately, what makes The Beekeeper of Aleppo so powerful and affecting.

By paring down the statistics, which sadly became the alarmist’s source for scare tactics about refugees to some in this country, Lefteri strips back the numbers to reveal two of the human beings behind them. And, in doing so, she offers us a more immediate and relatable story, reminding us that refugees are people, human beings just as you and I are.

Nuri and Afra are fairly ordinary, people who would have been quite content to live their entire lives in Aleppo. Their life together, their contentment with it, together with their love for each other, their family and friends, and their homeland comes through in the scenes of life before the unrest. By giving us a flavour of this, Christy Lefteri quickly made me warm towards them and like them as a couple.

When she showed me what they had to endure as the conflict encroached more and more upon their daily lives, ultimately forcing them into making the difficult decision to leave their home, my understanding of their situation, and sympathy towards them, was already in place. I was invested in them as characters.

Some of the details of the journey they make are sketchier than others but I don’t think this detracts from the book or the story Lefteri’s telling here. It’s understandable that she’s chosen to concentrate on their time in Athens, where she could draw on her own experience as a volunteer, and their stay in a halfway house once they reach safety. Yet, even once there, not quite but almost arrived at what will hopefully be their new home, I came to realise that their journey was far from over. If anything, their latest arrival somewhere only marked the beginning of a whole new journey: another one that would be dogged by uncertainty, threats and bureaucracy in an often hostile and alien environment.

I wondered at the structure of The Beekeeper of Aleppo when I first started reading it but, after having finished it, I think I understand why Christy Lefteri chose to tell Nuri and Afra’s story in the way she did. It offers readers some hope or promise of survival, something that seems all too fragile or fleeting at times for her characters.

Lefteri tells Nuri and Afra’s story with great understanding, compassion and grace, as they not only attempt to make the journey to safety but also find their way back to each other from every trauma endured along the way and the often deeper scars left by losses suffered while still at home in Aleppo.

In The Beekeeper of Aleppo Christy Lefteri tells a bruising, often brutal, story beautifully, putting a human face to the Syrian refugee crisis; it’s also a gentle nudge, a coaxing call for us to get involved and contribute in whatever way we can to help those who are displaced. People just like Nuri and Afra.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri is published by Zaffre Books, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK. It is available as an audiobook and ebook, and in hardback, with the paperback due out next year. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive, where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop.

Brought up in London, Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees. 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. For more information, check out the Beekeeper of Aleppo Website or follow Christy on Twitter.

My thanks to the publisher for sending me a proof copy for review.

Comments

BookerTalk
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I’ve seen this book many times in recent weeks and wondered about it. Could easily be sentimental or polemic. Sounds like Lefteri has navigated those potential minefields very well

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