Review: ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ by Christy Lefteri

The unforgettable love story of a mother blinded by loss and her husband who insists on their survival as they undertake the Syrian refugee trail to Europe.

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. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.

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, they must journey to find each other again.

Moving, powerful, compassionate, and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling.

From Goodreads.

DETAILS

Publisher: Ballantine Books

ISBN: 9781984821218

Date read: 26 April 2020

Review

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is Christy Lefteri’s second novel, drawing on the stories of displacement and devastation with which she came into contact as a volunteer at a refugee centre in Athens.

Herself the daughter of two Turkish refugees, Lefteri has an uncanny familiarity with themes of loss, nostalgia and exile – as well as a sensitivity to the ways in which the deeply personal element of these stories may be lost to sensationalised reports of faceless brutality. Her writing is in many ways a response to those senseless media portrayals and crisis imagery that can cause further damage to a population already vulnerable to extreme violence and prejudice. It is a response, too, to what she understands as the limitations of the human brain in extending empathy to large groups of people. In an interview with The National, she explains, “What I wanted to do is write a book about the individuals, couples, families caught up in this, in the hope that a novel can touch people in a way a news story can’t.” Consequently, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a potent, pressing, deeply researched response to the untold and unheard stories of asylum-seekers.

The longing for home is a central motif in Lefteri’s story – home in the sense of being emotionally and physically placed, of return, of comfort and safety. Nuri and Afra leave behind a Syria that can no longer fulfil these needs, setting out in search of not merely a new life, but an assurance and protection of life. Their trauma and the precarity of their refugee status, however, mean that home remains an elusive concept even when they reach the United Kingdom. The deep loss they grapple with – loss of their home, loss of their son, and loss of their selfhood – permeates the narrative on every level. Yet Lefteri’s storytelling does not indulge in overly bleak or sentimental portrayals of either her protagonists or the people they meet along their journey. Hers is a story that emphasises, above all, the necessity of compassion.

Also astonishing is Lefteri’s innovative style of storytelling. Her skills emerge most prominently through the shifting nature of her narrative. A single word becomes a rupture in time, at once a break in the story and a point of convergence. Past and present, here and there, memory and reality – the boundaries between these concepts become indistinct in the very syntax of the novel. This liminality of time, space, and language would be stylistically risky in any novel, but in Lefteri’s careful hands it is an extremely effective technique that adds to the reader’s sense of displacement. Here, we are given the opportunity to glimpse the effects of trauma on memory, to feel the violent unease of being torn across two spaces. We are encouraged, once again, to respond to the story in which we are immersed. We are challenged – compelled, even – to empathise. Deeply.

There’s not much else to say about The Beekeeper of Aleppo that it does not say for itself. It is an exquisite, lyrical novel about loss and survival – one that is as enjoyable to read as it is difficult to process.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Recommended to: Those interested in a deeply personal, challenging, and hopeful novel.

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