“I can’t concern myself with these foreign women.”
Thus speaks a policeman in Lefteri’s tale of modern Cyprus – when confronted with information of a missing migrant worker.
Lefteri’s first book The Beekeeper of Aleppo became a phenomenon.
Songbirds, her second book, is set in Nicosia, the Greek side of the Green Line which divides it from the Turkish sector. The story is peopled by four main characters; a mother Petra, her child Aliki, the live-in help Nisha – and a young man, Yiannis, who tenants the upstairs flat and who is Nisha’s lover.
At the start of the book, Nisha goes missing. The police are not interested, their attitude sadly becoming increasingly easy to believe with the news of police atrocities committed around the world.
In Cyprus we learn there is an entire underclass of maids, housekeepers, nannies – women (of course) from Sri Lanka and other countries who arrive to work long hours in order to send money home to their own families. Nisha has her own young daughter back in Sri Lanka but has had to choose to be paid to care for someone else’s child in a distant land. That is not a life choice any woman should be forced to make, yet there are hundreds just like Nisha in the same or even worse situations. Some lives are considered valuable, some are not.
The authorities believe that the missing woman has ‘gone North’ to look for other work. Petra is certain this is not true but her attempts to report the matter to Officer Kyprianou of the police are met by blank indifference.
“ I have more important matters to attend to. If she doesn’t return my guess would be that she’s gone away to the North. That’s what they do. She’s gone to the Turkish side to find better employment.”
Narrated alternately by Petra and Yiannis, this mystery of a vanished woman is set against the backdrop of a community which barely acknowledged her existence – as well as a brutal, highly illegal but lucrative hunting trade in the hunting of songbirds en route from Africa to Europe they die in the their thousands caught in nets, killed and sold to the restaurant trade.
This is a clever and poignant story. It is hard to discuss any plot items for fear of spoilers but we are treated to some excellent back story and character arcs during this investigation into a missing woman. Lefteri’s writing puts me in mind of Elif Shafak in its immediacy and economy, although she is not magic realist. Lefteri is realist realist. There are some graphic hunting scenes which I didn’t enjoy. But then that’s the whole point. And the story itself is gripping.