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REVIEW | The Songbirds by Christy Lefteri centres on the unrecognised

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Christy Lefteri is the author of The Songbirds. Her previous novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo won the Aspen Words Literary Prize. (Photograph supplied)
Christy Lefteri is the author of The Songbirds. Her previous novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo won the Aspen Words Literary Prize. (Photograph supplied)

Her name is Nisha and she is a migrant worker and as much a captive as the songbirds her lover, Yiannis, poaches as they navigate the forests and seas of Cyprus on their journey to other lands. 

In this heartbreaking novel, the author of the acclaimed The Beekeeper of Aleppo returns to her native country to evoke the life and world of the domestic worker in a story that should resonate with any South African who has ever been sensitive to the struggle of the millions who serve, often silently and anonymously, unrecognised and usually unappreciated. 

Only when she disappears does her employer, Petra, begin to find out just who the woman is who has been in her life for nine years and learn just how much she has in common with the "maid" who has all but brought up her daughter, Aliki.  

Yiannis, too, is a hostage – to the underworld characters for whom he gathers the glorious migrating songbirds, netting and slaughtering them and preparing them for the kitchens of the rich. Caught in the net of those who pay him, he must do their bidding or face the possibly fatal consequences. 

But all is not entirely bleak. There are moments of transcendent beauty in this strange and complex story. Despite the darkness at its heart, The Songbirds is also a multi-layered love story. Both Petra and Nisha have lost young husbands and Lefteri skilfully evokes the depth of their love and loss. The reader is privy to the intimacy of the love of the mothers for their daughters, the love between Aliki and Nisha, between Nisha and Yiannis and between Yiannis and the tiny, damaged songbird he saves and nurtures until it can fly free. 

It is also a mystery story. What happened on the Sunday that Nisha disappeared? Where is she? Why did she leave?  

The search for answers leads Petra to places very far from her privileged life; into worlds she could not have imagined. Determined to find out what has happened to the woman she has finally recognised as a mother, a daughter, a lover, a friend, she begins to meet and understand some of the hundreds of women who, like Nisha, have been forced into semi-slavery by the need to survive.  

Told in lyrical prose that evokes both the beauty and the treachery of the environment and of those – human and avian – who people it, The Songbirds is a compelling read, but not an easy one.

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