Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

 ‘Once you start asking questions, I’m sure more questions will emerge.’

Nisha is a migrant worker, a widow who has left her home and family in Sri Lanka to work as a nanny and housekeeper in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. Nisha is employed by Petra and looks after her nine-year-old daughter Aliki. Petra was widowed just before Aliki was born, and Nisha has always been Aliki’s mother figure. Petra has a business as an optician and has very little to do with Aliki. Until Nisha goes missing.

Yiannis is the tenant of an apartment in Petra’s house. He and Nisha have been having a secret affair, and he asks her to marry him. The affair is secret because knowledge of it could result in Nisha losing her job or even being deported. And how then could she support her mother and daughter in Sri Lanka? Yiannis shares a secret with Nisha, and soon after she disappears.

What has happened to Nisha? Has she ‘just run away’ as the police seem to think?

Both Yiannis and Petra are concerned. The police are disinterested. Meanwhile, Petra realises just how much she and Aliki have come to depend on Nisha, and just how much they have taken her for granted. Yiannis feels guilty and, urged by Nisha’s young daughter Angela, looks for her.

Yiannis is a poacher. He is involved in trapping and selling the tiny (and protected) songbirds that stop in Cyprus each year as they migrate between Africa and Europe.

‘They are worth more than their weight in gold.’

The birds are captured and killed and sold as delicacies. A lucrative, secretive, and illegal trade.

Petra’s search for Nisha leads her into a world in which migrant workers are exploited, and an increasing awareness that Nisha’s life was more complex than she had appreciated.

I read this novel caught between disgust for the treatment of migrant workers and Yiannis’s poaching activities, and the reality of lives where choices are often constrained by economic circumstances. Nisha, absent for most of the story, is very much the human face of many migrant workers: largely invisible, exploited and taken for granted. Much like the songbirds.

A beautifully written novel which held my attention from beginning to end.  And now I must read ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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